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Camel Trekking to Timbuktu

There really is a place called Timbuktu. You’ve probably used the name before as an expression, without ever knowing that this legendary city actually exists. It’s in northern Mali, in the dunes of West Africa’s Sahara desert, sleeping and slowly being buried in sand. It was near the end of our fourth extended visit to the region, and we knew we probably wouldn’t be coming back soon. So we figured a fitting grand travel finale would be the proverbial Timbuktu.

After considering the transportation options, we decided that there is only one way to arrive in Timbuktu in style -- on camel. We caught a bus to Douentza, Mali, about 200 km south of Timbuktu, to arrange the trip. From the town market a boy lead us a few miles outside of town to a nomadic camp. At first, the nomadic camel trader we’d found said he had no camels to spare. It was the planting season, and camels are the tractor of Northern Mali. We offered to pay him $20 for each day on camels, what the typical Malian earns in a month, and not surprisingly, two camels suddenly became available. He told us what supplies we would need to buy in the market: mats, turbans, water jugs, rice, tea, and blankets. Then he said we would leave early the next day.

Into the Sahara

As we got up on our camels for the first time that next morning we weren’t sure just exactly what we were getting ourselves into. It seemed that a trip like this should require more preparation than a ten-minute conversation with a nomadic farmer and a quick stop at the market. However, it was a good omen that this was the first type of transportation we had taken in West Africa that actually left on time.

Leaving Douentza
Guide, Bobocar, and author, Kurt Steinbach,
outside of Douentza, at start of trek

Caravan en route
Kurt, Bobocar, and Mali family in caravan to Timbuktu

Before the trip I had always envisioned the Sahara as a monotonous sea of barren sand. Actually the landscape is quite fascinating and surprisingly full of variety. The first day we passed through jagged rock formations and colorful cliffs shooting up from the flat, desert floor. Another day we rode through sandy hills dotted with acacia trees and tumbleweed. Occasionally, we passed a desert lake surrounded by small tracts of grass and shrub. Outside of Timbuktu we encountered dunes of loose, white sand.

Sand, Wind, and Exhaustion

It seemed like we were constantly on the move. Every morning we rode from around 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., when it got too hot for man or beast. We would stop and set up camp under as much shade as we could find. We drank tea, snacked on dried dates, and tried to nap before getting back on the camels around 3 p.m. We would then ride until nightfall, usually around 7 p.m. Every evening before setting up camp, we watched the desert sundown in awe. As the sun set over the sand, it took on an eerie, reddish glow, as if it had suddenly become electrified. After dinner of rice and tea we rolled our mats on the desert floor and star-gazed before dozing off to sleep for a few hours, when the moon rose around one a.m. We then rode by moonlight for five or six hours until dawn. At sunrise we would stop for tea and rest until starting the cycle again around 8 a.m..

Afternoon camp
Setting up camp under an acacia tree

Hitting the trail again

At times it was difficult to keep to this demanding schedule. On the second night a fierce sandstorm hit us just after we had finished dinner. There was nothing we could do but lie down on our mats with our backs to the wind and blankets over our heads. The wind sounded like ocean waves breaking on a beach. After an hour or two of being pelted with sand I dozed off while the sandstorm was still raging. When I awoke to complete calmness the next morning, sand was everywhere: stacked an inch high on my pillow; in my pockets; in my hair; in my mouth; and between my toes. As we picked up our mats that morning we found a family of scorpions that had taken refuge from the storm beneath us.

Even less appetizing than the monotonous desert cuisine forced by practicality was the water that we had to drink. When we left Douentza we had loaded as much water as we could carry. However, we had to also find water en route, since it was impossible to carry enough for the long trek. On the third day we ended up drinking muddy water from an oasis. It was darker than chocolate milk and tasted like a mouthful of dirt. We had no option but to drink it, since dehydration in the desert will kill long before getting sick from dirty water.

Where’s Timbuktu?

By the fifth day of the trek our spirits hit rock-bottom. We were exhausted, filthy, and hungry. All morning we had been riding through a blinding sandstorm that seemed like it would never end. We had no idea how much further we had to go, and the soreness on our rear-ends from being tossed around a hard, wooden saddle for ten hours a day was becoming unbearable. Then shortly after noon that day, we crested a dune and there before us was the Niger River cutting through the desert. Timbuktu sat peacefully beyond the opposite bank. Our spirits soared.

Kurt leads
Kurt leading his camel

There was definitely something magical about arriving in Timbuktu on camels. Timbuktu for me was not so much a destination as a journey; more precisely, it was the end of a journey. The ancient city was our reward, symbolizing our success in overcoming the hardships of the demanding trek.

After resting our tired bodies we explored the sandy streets, variously lined with mud mosques and small shops. Timbuktu was reportedly founded in the 11th century. By the 15th century it had reached its zenith as a terminus of trans-Saharan caravans and a distribution point for trade along the upper Niger. However after invasion by Morocco and diversion of the trade routes, Timbuktu fell into decline in the 1700s. Today the sleepy city of 20,000 inhabitants functions as a regional trade center for salt and basic commodities. Major handicrafts include cotton garments, leather goods, and pottery.

Betsy & Timbuktu
Betsy Kleiner and the Timbuktu skyline

Children & Mosque
Timbuktu children, before a mosque

End of the Road

After just two nights in Timbuktu we knew we had reached the end of the road. Having spent so much time in West Africa, we knew that it was time to go home. While trekking through the desert en route to Timbuktu, caught in a sandstorm, thirsty and exhausted, it seemed like the trip would never end. But before I knew it, we were reclining in our comfortable seats watching a movie on the flight back to the U.S., anticipating that first heavenly bite of pizza.

Somewhere over the Atlantic my thoughts drifted back to the day, three years earlier, when I first walked into a West African village. How surreal it all seemed: mud huts with conical, straw roofs; women pounding millet with wooden poles, babies strapped to their backs; kids climbing mango trees; men with crude wooden tools returning from their fields on donkey. It felt as if I had walked into a museum exhibit. It was so real, that it felt strangely unreal. That night my girlfriend and I sat on the ground on straw mats stargazing at the awesome African sky, bulging with stars. The Southern Cross hung above a gigantic mango tree at the edge of the village. The villagers couldn’t understand why we were staring upwards. We tried to explain that some of the slowly moving stars were actually satellites that the U.S. had launched. We also recounted how Americans had walked on the moon. They didn’t believe a single word we said. It was an exciting feeling to know there is a part of the planet so different from our industrialized regime -- a world that most people will never experience.

Click here for details to plan your own voyage to remote Mali and Timbuktu.

Kurt Steinbach
Photos: Kurt Steinbach, Betsy Kleiner

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