Timbuktu or bust!

Timbuktu Travel Blog

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Timbuktu girl
May 19, 2010
Hotel: Auberge le Caravansereil, Timbuktu, Mali

Our 'friend' from the day before had agreed to pick us up this morning at 8:30, for the 9AM departure to Timbuktu. We thought he was going to bring a taxi but surprised us when he showed up on foot.. we thought it was a fair distance back through town to the 4WD departure shack. But he knew a shortcut and only took about 5 minutes to walk.

We had to sit and wait awhile.. apparently the 4WD for the previous day had mechanical problems and was only leaving this morning.
. it wasn't encouraging to us when we saw our driver start taking apart the leaf springs under our Land Cruiser! Another of our 'friends', 'Cool Boy' from the previous day also showed up, he had tried to get us to go on a sunset cruise in his pinasse. But the air had been so hazy with sand, the sunset last night wasn't anything spectacular (more a white disk than red). We had to sit for two hours waiting in the 110-degree heat (but at least in the shade of the shack) and next to a fly-covered baby. I bought a couple of cold water packets for $0.05 each to stick on my neck to cool down.

Apparently the delay was because there weren't enough seats sold on the 4WD yet.. they needed 12 total passengers, we had bought 4 of them but they needed another 2. We decided to buy one more seat to hasten the departure.
Finally about 11:10 we set off, having to push start the SUV. I was glad we had the extra room in the middle seat, even so it was tight on my feet and I had to sit somewhat sideways. We headed to the gas station first (you could wait 5 hours but shared taxis only get gas when they're actually leaving), then to Sevare on the main road, where we ended up picking up another few passengers (and of course we didn't get a refund for that 5th seat we had paid for..)

The 200kms road to Douentza was paved all the way, took about 3 hrs to drive the distance. The SUV wasn't air-conditioned, but the windows opened at least and the breeze felt good.
We stopped awhile to get some drinks and use the bathroom before heading north on the piste towards Timbuktu (Tombouctou), another 200kms away. The piste was in good condition at first, but soon degraded into washboard surface.. the driver spent more time driving at the side of the road than on it at times. There were some impressive sandstone cliffs we passed after about 20kms. The road markers are only every 5km, we seemed to be making good time, but still the distance markers to Timbuktu seemed to be decreasing at a glacial rate..

I'd hoped to reach Timbuktu before dark, but that seemed less and less likely as the sun set and darkness set in. The landscape had been changing, from scrub trees and sparse grass, to stony rock, to sand. The road was harder going here too in soft sand at times, with one headlight, we kept going into the night.
This is really where I wish my GPS was working! I was starting to get worried we'd miss the last ferry across the Niger river and have to spend the night in the desert; apparently this is a common occurrence with the buses that go to Timbuktu.

We did eventually reach the ferry in time; but as we're pulling up the ramp, the 4WD loses power and we have to get out and push it up the rest of the ramp. I'm holding my camera at the time, it's pitch dark and there's the gap in the ramp.. was darn lucky I didn't drop my camera in the river! One more 4WD comes on after us as the driver does an emergency axle replacement.. pulling out the rear axle from the differential the gears were totally stripped. I guess we're lucky they had a spare axle, or more likely they knew it was going bad! Meanwhile the car is still running as they don't want to have to push start it again!

From the ferry landing, it was still another 20 minutes or so to Timbuktu itself.
Tuareg, Timbuktu
Our driver dropped us off at the hotel, which ended up being way on the edge of town.. by now it was about 9PM, almost 10hrs after we had left Mopti, we were hungry and tired. The hotel looked nice enough, but definitely there was no one else staying here and everything was coated in a film of dust. No air-con rooms, just a fan, which was ineffective at anything but moving more hot air around.. the walls, floor and even bed just radiated heat. It's possible to sleep on the roof here, which would have been a better idea to catch the breeze! As it was I spent a hot, sweaty, sleepless night tossing and turning, sprinkling water on the bed and trying to keep cool.

May 20, 2010
Hotel: Colombe 2, Timbuktu, Mali

In the morning, we decided to check out other hotels; we left the hotel and walked into town to find some breakfast.
Timbuktu door
Along the way, a Tuareg approached us and started chatting, he said 'I'm no guide' but of course he had things to sell. Actually good quality silverwork, but he followed us all the way to breakfast, then kept trying to get us to go visit his shop at the north end of town. We found the hotel Colombe 2 which was in a better location, had air-con and let us put an extra mattress in the room, excellent!

We next tried to arrange the 4WD transport back to Sevare.. the first tout who approached us said he'd take us back to our other hotel and get our bags 'for free'. When we returned to the Colombe, we said we'd pay half the 4WD fee now, then half tomorrow.. he didn't like that (he'd miss out on half his cut if we paid the driver directly..), we said OK then see you later.
We started walking through town, planning on visiting some of the mosques and maybe find a cybercafe. We ran into another 4WD tout, though we liked this guy better and we went back to the hotel to arrange the transport. This guy we paid full price right away (20k CFA, found out it should have been 17.5 if we had bought direct from the driver.. so he's making $5 off each of us basically). As we're sitting there, a man in a sharp suit enters the room, our tout mentions it's the minister of Tourism for Mali! Apparently a festival is going on nearby and there are alot of bigwigs in town today.. even the President of Mali is expected to attend the next day. Meanwhile, our original tout shows up and is upset we didn't use him, but now of course he wanted $$ for taking us to get our bags.

Finally we're able to start having a look around town. Timbuktu is a dusty place; most streets are sand only. Houses are basic mud adobe brick, though some with elaborate wooden doors. Timbuktu used to be a rich place, at the end of the camel caravan across the Sahara. Salt caravans still end their journey here after the 700km trek from northern Mali. It was a place of Islamic learning, still today there are libraries all over town with old manuscripts and copies of the Koran. It was closed off to foreigners even until the 1800s. But its glory days have passed.. now it's a dusty town more known for the exotic name and remoteness. It's even possible to fly to Timbuktu now, but where is the fun in that?

It was already lunchtime, but with the lack of tourists hotels/restaurants were either closed or had a skeleton staff, indicating a lengthy wait to get something to eat.
We stopped by a restaurant that had at least a few people eating, we all ordered a half chicken with french fries. They must have had to hunt the chicken down because we sat there for an hour and a half waiting on lunch! We got up to leave several times but they kept saying 'tout de suite'. We were a little apprehensive too after looking at the hygenic state of the kitchen! But everything was good and tasty and no problems.. just don't come hungry or be in a hurry to eat here!

We finally got to walk to the mosques and have a look around town before heading back to the hotel for a siesta. I bought a cool looking dagger from a Tuareg that followed us back to the hotel... more ornamental than functional as it I doubted it could even cut soft butter. After the nap we found the Internet cafe; we all wanted email our friends from Timbuktu! It was predictably slow though.

That night, we had dinner on the hotel restaurant balcony overlooking the street.. we ordered something supposedly simple, beef and couscous. Well that wait only took 75 minutes; meanwhile all these brand new SUVs are pulling up outside our hotel, disgorging fancily-dressed people talking on cell phones. All the VIPs were arriving for the festival and were staying at our hotel. The police ended up standing around guard outside all night.
SmileyGirl says:
Its cool you were there to see all those VIPs arrive!
Posted on: Jun 05, 2010
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Timbuktu girl
Timbuktu girl
Tuareg,  Timbuktu
Tuareg, Timbuktu
Timbuktu door
Timbuktu door