Mysterious Timbuktu

story and photos by Yvonne Harrison

I had always wanted to visit the mysterious Timbuktu, as the word alone signifies going to the ends of the earth.  But do you know where that is?   I knew getting there would be an adventure but it proved to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated.  I should have known better.  In 1824 the National Geographic Society of Paris offered 10,000 francs to anyone who could return with an account of the fabled cit.  Over the next 20 years, 34 men tried but it was not until 1853 that Heinrich Barth returned and convinced others that Timbuktu had declined to a dusty desert town.

Late in October, my husband Garry and I flew to Dakar, Senegal, where we met our Dragoman tour group of two leaders, Pat and Noel, plus 22 other brave souls, aged 25 – 65, to set out on a five-week overland journey.  On Tonka our truck, we had all we needed to live:  tents on the roof, tables, stoves, camp chairs, dishes and food bins stored in custom-made compartments along the side.  Usually we stopped at a campground, but periodically had to bush camp when we found ourselves in complete wilderness. We always hoped it would not be bush camping for two consecutive nights as that meant no showers for two nights!

Our trip was relatively uneventful until the Senegal/Mali border where we had to visit four customs places – two on leaving the Senegal side – one for passport stamps and one for the truck papers – with the same process repeated on entering Mali.  It took a few hours to locate these huts down side streets.  Leaving the last passport check, we noticed trucks lined up for miles and wondered, “What was the problem?”   We soon found out – there was a huge hole in the border bridge. The officials had decided that Tonka was small enough to cross, so across we went, fortunately, as it would have taken five additional days to drive to the next bridge and return to our scheduled route.  We inched along, the left side of Tonka almost touching the side of the bridge, mirrors turned in, with the wheels on the right side at the very edge of the seven-foot hole and all of us holding our breath and praying.  To say it was a relief to be on the opposite side is an understatement.

It was hard to imagine that Mali was once the centre of three great empires.  Stark poverty is seen everywhere. Sludge fills city sewers in the capital, Bamako; subsistence farming is seen in the countryside.  As we headed towards the wilderness leading to Timbuktu I was worried as Garry was not feeling well.  When we bush camped that night and he did not eat I knew he was ill, as anyone who knows Garry knows he does like his food.   The next morning he was not any better and we were faced with a difficult choice. Would we go ahead with the group and sail up the Niger for three days where no medical help would be possible, or stay with Noel and Pat our drivers and bump along miles of rutted road as they brought Tonka to meet the group?  What a dilemma!

The pinasse is a small, narrow motorized boat with a matted roof.  It did have benches, so we decided to take the water route and start Garry on Cipro, a very strong antibiotic that we always carry with us on trips.  Tents, food, jugs of drinking water and our day packs soon filled the small storage space we were allocated and we were ready to set off for Timbuktu.  The group kindly gave Garry and me a front bench so he could lie down.  This is where he spent the three days prone, weakly stumbling to the tent I pitched on the riverside banks in the evenings.