Timbuktu (Tomboctou), Mali

Tomboctou, which is the spelling shown on most maps, is actually the French spelling (according to our guide), and the more familiar Timbuktu is supposedly closer to the true spelling.  Timbuktu is in the middle of the desert and even the main streets of the city are sand (4 wheel drive is a good idea for navigating Main Street!)  Once a very remote place (the first western explorer to discover Timbuktu did so in the early 19th century, the first one to live to tell about it was a bit later), it now has an airport served by international flights.  It is still not exactly on the beaten path, however.

Preferred methods of reaching Timbuktu are by river boat or air.  Driving is possible but rugged and slow.  We elected to fly because of a tight schedule, and departed from the airport at Mopti.

Vendors surround the terminal building and for the sake of peace it is easier to remain inside the terminal while awaiting your flight on Air Maybe (uh, Air Mali).  On the left is one of what we came to call "Hat Guys" - with hats being one of the many things that they wanted to sell us.  On the right is an arriving flight - another Hat Guy can be seen in the foreground with several hats on his head.

The plane to Timbuktu was an old Russian model.  These are shots of the Russian pilots and the interior of the plane.  Note the secure storage of the overhead compartments.  By the way, if you were wondering about Airport Security - there was none.  Not that we were really worried about a hijacking - I would not have been surprised to learn that there was more than one sword or dagger buried amidst some of passenger's robes...
After arriving at Timbuktu we were met by our guide for this portion of the trip, Halis Ag Elmoctar ( elmoctar@yahoo.com ), a charming Tuareg in blue robes and turban.  Obviously at home with modern conveniences as well as the desert, my wife asked him if he took off the blue robes when the tourists were not around.  He laughed and assured us that this was his normal garb and that his heart was in the desert, saying that in the evenings he would ride back out into the desert to sleep as there was where he felt most comfortable.
The Tuaregs are a desert people who have an independent and fierce reputation.  A story that we heard repeated many times is that a severe drought in 1973 killed all of their livestock (camels, goats, sheep) which are an absolute necessity for life in the desert.  At first many survived by raiding villages on the edge of the desert, but eventually most had to move into civilization in order to survive.  Many have not been able to leave even yet, as the cost of replacing the livestock (a camel is $3-500 USD) is a prohibitive expense.  Halis assured us that he was only in the tour guide business in order to be able to get what he needed to be able to return to the life he loved.  As he said, "I am Tuareg, I am born with the sand in my eyes" - although when spoken in French it is far more poetic sounding.

Our first stop was at the Sahara Passion Hotel ( spassion@bluewin.ch )to drop off our stuff. This is the front gate and views of Timbuktu from the rooftop:
Below are views of one of the rooms (complete with mosquito net) and the shared bathroom at the end of the hall:

NOTE:  I have received a number of comments about this website since I have posted it.  One of them was from Christine Rabah, who has recently (early 2005) opened another hotel in Timbuktu.  Her website is well worth visiting:  http://timbuktu-tombouctou.websiteanimal.com

Then Halis took us on a walking tour of the city which was very interesting.  This is the Mosque at Timbuktu and an inside view:
We also stopped by the home of the Minister of Tourism for Timbuktu (it was Saturday and the office was closed).  He graciously accomodated us on his day off with the very important tourist ritual of stamping our passports with the Timbuktu stamp.  We gave him something for his trouble.  On the right is a weaver in one of the markets:
Then it was time for our "Camel ride into the desert" - hardly a novel activity as we saw other clusters of camels with tourists on them making the same trek.
But then came what surprisingly was a highlight of the Timbuktu part of the trip - a stop in the desert.  We dismounted and one of our guides brewed the Malian version of tea - a very strong concoction (think of Cappucino and cough syrup) served in small glasses.  Definitely no shortage of caffeine!
But what was really nice about this time was the quiet and peacefulness of the desert.  We could see why Halis preferred to live out here away from the clamor of the city.  Just the sound of the wind and an occaisional grumble from a camel.

Well, that was until the phone rang!  From somewhere deep within those blue robes Halis pulls out a cell phone!  I nearly rolled on the sand laughing...

We rode back to Timbuktu as evening fell.  One more important stop was the Library at Timbuktu - possibly one of the oldest in the world.  Many of the books in the collection have been passed down within families over many generations and have only recently been contributed for the sake of preservation.  Some of the texts we saw were nearly a millenium (or more) old.

Next stop in the tour:
Or you can skip to:
 Dogon Country