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Timbuktu - A travel report by Meyer
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Timbuktu,  Mali - flag Mali
8340 readers

cycleboy's travel reports

Destination: Timbuktu! A Niger River expedition

  19 votes
report of the month contest
Apr 2003

Timbuktu travelogue picture
“I have been to Timbuktu” is the title of a book written by the French explorer René Caillié. He was not the first European to visit legendary Timbuktu in 1828, but the first who came back alive. All the predecessors of Caillié have been killed or died by disease, hunger or thurst. Over centuries the name Timbuktu aroused the avarice and curiosity of the Europeans, because the entrance to this sacred city of the Islam was forbidden for nonbelievers. Arabic merchands discribed Timbuktu as fabulous rich, some told about boulevards plastered with gold. But Caillié and all the other discoverers who followed him found nothing “but a mass of ill-looking houses built of earth”, because Timbuktu’s golden age already ended in the late sixteenth century, when a Moroccan army destroyed the mighty Songhay Empire. However, even nowadays few places in the world have an air of mystery as alluring as Timbuktu.

Favourite spots:
Timbuktu travelogue picture
Today Timbuktu is an old Sahel town. The traditional buildings are mostly lapsed, but are not disfigured by new buildings. The town is not particularly big, you will find everything in walking distance. The museum provides first information and is worth a visit. The old domestic architecture with numerous decorated doors and shutters is impressive. Worth seeing as well are the houses where the European explorers René Caillé, Gordon Laing and Heinrich Barth (with little museum) stayed while visiting this legendary place. Last but not least don’t forget to visit the three mosques Djinger-Ber, Sidi Yahia and Sankoré. If you are lucky you can undergo the arrival of one of the big caravans northwest of Sankoré. They bring salt plates from Taoudenni in northern Mali, 800 kilometers away. It will take another 4 – 7 days to transport the saltplates by boat to Mopti, where they are sold.

What's really great:
Timbuktu travelogue picture
Even today, access to Timbuktu is not easy. It’s probably not overconfident to affirm, that there are not many cities which are so difficult to reach or to leave as this place at the gateway to the Malian Sahara. O.K., you can go by air, but a sudden landing in the Sahara is boring and you will miss the slow approach to such a mystic and isolated site. Going by car in the rainy season is almost impossible – there are only dirt roads leading to Timbuktu and in the rest of the year temperatures around 40° C make the trip a torture. The most comfortable way is traveling by a traditional pinasse (boat) on the River Niger. There is always a cool and fresh breeze and you will have the opportunity to witness African life in the numerous villages along the river, where time seems to stand still. The complete white civilisation runs after the time – the people here have time in abundance! And you will have the experience of one of the most impressive river landscapes on earth: A large river flowing through the desert! Another unforgettable experience: Sitting in the warm sand of a dune, feeling the smooth silky desert air, smoking a Havanna cigar and watch the stars: They are so bright that you can almost feel the earth turning.

Timbuktu travelogue picture
Crossing Lake Debo you think you are on an ocean rather than on a river: the shores are hardly to be seen. Make a stop at some of the small villages or towns along the river, like Niafunké or Diré. Most of them have picturesque markets and little mosques, built in the traditional banco architecture, similar to the adobe buildings in New Mexico. The people are very friendly and without any agression against tourists. There will always be children around you, asking the “tubab” (white man) for a “cadeau” (present). Don’t hesitate to visit one of the tent camps of the several nomadic tribes, roaming on or along the river, following the vegetation for their cattle or the swarms of fish to catch. Back on the river, you will always need one hand to change greetings with people on other pinasses passing by, and hippo families make for a change from time to time. Last but not least, the Niger is a birdwatchers paradise: eagles, storks, herons, kingfishers populate the shores

Timbuktu travelogue picture
I don’t think that there is a decent accomodation between Mopti and Timbuktu. So camping is the first choice and without any problems, despite the dense population. It’s no problem to find beautiful places, especially on sand dunes overlooking the river. On arrival there are always a lot of people from the nearby villages around you, interesting in what you are doing and where you come from. But don’t worry: when its getting dark they go back to their villages and you feel like beeing allone in the quiet desert night. And although we left our luggage allone in the dark while having dinner on the pinasse, nothing has been stolen during the ten days on the river, not even a plastic bag!

Timbuktu travelogue picture
See accomodation. We had a kitchen on bord of our pinasse and bought the most important supply of goods (beer for example! (((-: ) at the beginning of our expedition. Fresh vegetables, bananas and other things are sold on the markets along the river. If you are lucky, you can buy the catch of the day from a Bozo fisherman: a large fish named Capitain, the real king of the Niger. I never tasted such an excellent fish before!

Other recommendations:
Timbuktu travelogue picture
There are several possebilities to travel by boat. The cheapest way is on of the big passenger ships cruising on the river. But travel together with goats, sheep, cows, fresh (?) and dried fish and other undefined goods is more or less a matter for the “hard core” traveller. Or you can charter your private boat from one of the numberless pinassiers in Mopti. But how do you know how reliable these guys are? So the less adventoures tourist will join one of the local tour agents in Bamako or Mopti. They provide pinasses 15 to 20 meters long with wooden benches, a roof for sun protection, kitchen and toilet. This trip will take 4 or 5 days from Konna (near Mopti) to Timbuktu. If time doesn’t matter, continue from Timbuktu to Gao. This area is less densly populatet, the dunes are higher and are coloured in beautiful pink. At the end of the trip you can proudly say: I have been to Timbuktu and came back – alive!

Published on Monday April 21th, 2003

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Mon, Feb 11 2008 - 10:36 PM rating by krisek

This one is truly great! I wish I was more fortunate to venture there as well, when I went to Mali.

Sat, Oct 30 2004 - 05:41 PM rating by picasso

Amaising report,for amaising spot on Earth
If i could,i would give you 10,but unfortunatly 5 is the highest what we can give.

Best wishes on great writing

Fri, Oct 08 2004 - 06:08 PM rating by rangutan


Thu, May 01 2003 - 02:37 AM rating by admin

What a faszinating and detailed description. I was impressed by the pictures and the amount of work you must have done for your research to write this article. This article will be of help for all members off our community. Members like you lead the community.

This report has won the "report of the month" contest April 2003.
It is also listed on:

Keep up the great work!


Mon, Apr 21 2003 - 12:01 PM rating by inzaghi

There's passion flowing through the words of this extremely detailed report! Definitely makes me want to go check out the heart of Africa too!

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