Africa 2009 Overland in Des, Safari

Africa 2009 – 07 Mali TIMBOUCTOU


Update on the library in Timbuktoo

Desert came immediately after leaving Douenza. Camels and thorn trees. We were warned about the road but for the first hundred or so kilometers, it was not unpleasant washboard. Then, inevitably, the groves deepened, the sand drifted, and we veered between vibrating washboard, deep sand track or off piste uncertainty. The latter two were slow going.

The piste ended abruptly at the Niger river. A lazy mud meander of a river now after we’d last seen it as a kilometer wide stretch at Segu. No boat. No sign. A few round huts and a man pointing. We followed the tracks down to the river bed driving on mud before rising up across a field, through some water, and up to a Eucalyptus lined tarmac road. ‘Cocacola welcome you to Tombucktou’, ‘Take care Use Condoms’, advertising boards welcome us to this end of the earth place.

From here to Tombouctou. The name we all knew as kids but did we know where it was? Synonymous with desert mystery, camel caravans. Once a strategic location on the salt route, being on the edge of Sahara and at the top of the ‘Niger bend’ it was then a fabulously wealthy terminus for camel caravans linking West Africa with Mediterranean. And the intellectual and spiritual capital and centre for the propergation of Islam throughout Africa in the C15th and C16th centuries.

We arrive with the advantage of prejudice. Not one person we’ve met on the way spoke kindly of Tombouktou, not one traveller waxed lyrically, rather each expressed a disappointment, ‘It’s a hot dust bowl’. LP says ‘Timbuctou has become the byword for the wests disappointment with Africa.’ Uncertain exactly what this means.

We sit outside a restaurant opposite the first place the obligatory Tombuctou guide bought us to and Barry fatefully declined and asked for a hotel with a swimming pool. The story came back to sting him, and he, with his easy mirth, laughed later at his folly. (We found the hotel with a pool, Russian style, and soulless yes with a pool pool but ill with green weed (‘I’m not swimming here’ i declared) with promises to clean which predictably were not fulfilled, so the explosion of anger, the vessel into which all our past and present grievances were poured, overflowed to no gain but a loss of precious energy in Tombuctou heat)

Check is with us. Mate is Barry’s new name, and I am ‘Let’s go’. Check (probably spelt Sheik) is another child guide, once more acceptable and non threatening to i-shall-have-no-guide-barry. He follows us as we get lost in the sanding lanes, unit we have to turn to him and ask ‘Which way to the Grand Marche?’ So he evolved from one ignored who followed us, to one who leeds and we depended on. He has a charming open smile, which became a guiding torch in the darkening streets, as we go in search of a place to eat (he knows), and then a place to find beer (he knows), at least a kilometer walk. Capitain from the Nile for Barry, Couscous for me, chips and coca cola for Check. Check listens to our talk in our strange tongue that he quietly and independently imitates. He has a little English already. He does not press us with a camel. He does not have one, but rather he owns 5 donkeys. B asks Check to bring one to our restaurant to take us back home.

Aware of the impending heat we begin early the next morning to walk the streets. The famous old mud mosque is being repaired and is closed.

There are libraries on most street corners in the old town, containing old manuscripts with illuminated writing some on skin, some not eaten by termites. In the shadow of the the Mosque walls the young boys rote learn the Koran, reading from wood tablets age old. Yes, Tombuctou was once a centre of Islamic scholarship, forbidden to non-muslims. Houses are plaqued with the names of Westeners who eventually made it across the desert, traveling in disguise, too many dying on the way or way back. Of the 4 people who made it to Tombuctou only 2 got back to tell the tale, one killed, one died of fever. No washboard road then.

B does not like this place. It’s low mud homes are more often in ruins, and sprawl in sand filling streets, littered with discarded rubbish. There is nothing to do. He is disappointed. So we agree to an English speaking camel persuader, and go for a camel ride out to the desert to a Tuareg village. Our last desert night.

‘Don’t say I don’t do anything for you’, says B fatefully, as we walk towards 2 waiting camels on the outskirts of Tombouctou town.

‘Worst night of my life. Bored out of my mind. And I paid for it’ were some of the words expressed later, under the night sky laying on very hard sand, living amongst marauding goats, a farting camel, a cat with one eye and no doubt flees, a crying child, an arabic conversing family. Someway not so far away we can hear a Tuareg dance party (paid for by American tourists) with drums and a convoy of 4×4 wheel cars relaying the tourists, which Barry longed to be transported back in.

‘English, French, Germans like too much the desert, but American people  they are too much afraid to sleep here’, said Mohamed (naturally) our camel man, in whose compound we were residing that night (Just one night, I assured b). Unusually the village is composed of very dispersed compounds deliniated simply by a circle of thorn bush branches, to protect against wandering goats.

‘It is good for the animals and the children – non stray too far.’ explained Mohamed. There was much looking out to see who comes and goes, and occasionally there is a conversation shouted across the sand.

The tranquil talk of Mohamed, as he led us that evening reminded me much of Hayat Khan and other camel drivers in India; there was no difference. Their easy banter, passing news, chewing cud, their watchful eye on their camels making sure the saddle did not rub.

It was the same here, he said. ‘Only male camels were used, for the female could not be tamed and lived wild to bring up her children’.

Hm, says B, who eventually gets to sleep with the help of his hip flask.

Des  in Tombouctou

Des now lives in Tombouctou. Not in the Dogons with the Campament owner who wanted to drive people to hospitals. He is not owned by Michael a tourist operator to drive tourists over washboard roads. He does not live with Mohameds father in Bamako, nor with the Lebanese man still waiting for a phone call.

He lives with Madiou Toure, the Minister of Hydrology and Energy in Tombouctou, who is a man of few but well chosen words, a bit like water here. As soon as we arrived in Tombouctou Des created a stir, and middle men fixers appeared from all corners of his hot and dusty city, hungry for commission. I lost count of the people who looked him over, but even I was getting tired of showing him off. After all we had four certain buyers waiting for us in Mopti and Bamako, all of which called us once a day.

There we were just back from a night in the desert, B exhausted from lack of sleep, collapsed on the bed, AC on, both of us uninterested in another looking under Des bonnet. But 7,000 Euro could not be ignored. Des had done the journey and doubled in value.

In an hour (while we still in resting ac) Toure had drawn the CFA from the bank, found the best rate of exchange in the Marche Noir and returned, with 7,000 Euro to seal the deal.

‘You see I am a man of my word’, boasted Ay-eu-be, the side kick, the facilitator, who neither of us particularly liked.

Des was never just a piece of metal, just so the sale was not a simple exchange of pieces of paper. That evening B – with generous spirit – invited Toure and others to dinner with us at our French run Auberge Caravanair, where we opened our last bottle of Spanish wine, a very tasty Tempranillo slightly chilled. Our hosts were Christian and Frank (father and son), who had upt their sticks from Paris 3 years ago to live in Tombouctou, building this Auberge for travelers. Three months ago the party of Swiss German English who were kidnapped by the Tuareg, passed through here on their way north after the Festival of the Desert. Christian is much like Barry with departure aged 14 from school and that conventional life, embracing travel as his university.

An impromptu garage sale evolved the next day as we unloaded ‘all to go’ from Des. Ay-eu-be was the first to appear to claim the cream – mattresses etc. We gave him the tent for his commission, although he was not much appreciative. For two days people came and went, offering bargains, pressing us, winding Barry up, looking through telescopes and tools.

Naturally we gave Des a good clean with a passion confounding the locals.

Barry is not a sentimental man. He would not stay to see me drive Des out of the gates. So I drove out alone, along Tombouctous sand encroaching streets, to the home of Toure, Frank Sinatre playing ‘Two Drifters off to see the world’.

I left the Sinatre CD to Toure, along with a coconut, a Hindu custom I explained. Can we eat it? Toure asked the next night, when we dined with him and his very warm hearted wife, who made me cry with her emotion at receiving Des.

I see Co-Operative Save the Planet bags in different homes, our bucket, plastic sheeting outside different doors. Here in this the bare desert, such individual Western things are rare and valued. Only onions exist in the market. Olive Oil, Tamari, a pepper grinder, these are indeed exotic luxuries. The last to go our our feather pillows, donated to Christian.

That night Barry went down with fever. I cannot remember when Barry was ill (except the gout), nor could he and he disliked it. The chemist assured me many suffer in this time. The Harmatin wind that blows from the north whips up the sand dust, obliterating the sun.

‘C’est le Pouissance’ he explained, the tiny sand particles that collect in our lungs and sinuses. Like the dog, Barry slept all day. We are dreaming of English rain, overcast clouds, Radio 4 or even Radio 2. Our flights to Bamako are booked. Our cases packed and well over weight.

End days: Bamako Banjule

That 7,000 Euro cash burns a hole in Barry’s pocket: he was never one to save. The last jacket has no pockets, is his mantra. The journey back lightened the load of the cash, with swift jumps to Bamako – a few days easy swimming in Hotel Mandi  cocooned in the oasis of Niger River cool – an 8 hour taxi drive to Banjule arriving on the last and slow ferry across the Gambia river at mid-night. A few delightful days with our old friends, Damiano and Giovana, before a flight back to somewhere in the midlands, and a taxi down. Somewhere along the way I went into the world of The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, back into Bihar and Darkness. I was exiting Africa.

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