Until I found Timbuktu on the map—faint dot there in the southern Sahara—it existed in my mind as a mythical place used by my uncles in Adelaide for indicating hopelessly long distances.
The aura surrounding Timbuktu has been helped along over the centuries by the camel-gait of its syllables; 'From Here to Ayers Rock' which might also suggest distance is hardly in the same league. And even in the latest official spelling, 'Tombouctou', there is the sound of tom-toms.
But its reputation depended finally on the degree of difficulty in reaching the invisible city. To this day Timbuktu continues to resist the casual visitor, although its power is weakening.
Mali itself is in the interior of west Africa. And it is large: four times larger than New Zealand, with two or three Tasmanias tossed in. The seven African states surrounding it are in various stages of decline. Their names are splendidly evocative: Ivory Coast, Niger, Upper Volta. All remain more or less time-warped in Islam, agricultural poverty and the effects of European occupation. Mauritania, the enormous north-west neighbour to Mali, abolished slavery only in 1980, and until very recently had no building of more than one storey in the entire country.
From Dakar on the coast in Senegal to Bamako, the capital of Mali, is a thirty-hour train journey; still further inland, roughly another 800km, Timbuktu can be reached by ancient propeller plane, or bush-taxi, or riverboat along the Niger, depending on water level. Usually it is a combination of all three. In the plane when I went up to talk to the pilot, who had never made the trip before, I noticed he was flying with a road map in one hand; and the 'bush-taxi' turned out to be a Peugeot covered in dents, crammed with nine other passengers and a goat.
And along these worn paths of Africa there is the vague feeling of dislocation. Unlike Europe or across Russia or India even there are no cultural references; no touchstones along the way, such as a cathedral page 150 breaking the horizon, or a woodcock flying up in front, straight out of the sketches of Turgenev.
I reached Timbuktu early in November believing it would not be hot. Small boys ran forward and called out, ' Toubabou! Toubabou!' ('White man! White man!') The heat and sand soon had me dressing like a Tuareg: winding a chayta, usually indigo, around the face, just the eyes showing. It is why the Tuareg are called the 'blue men of the desert'. Women do not cover their faces, but carry a shawl called an afar, occasionally they cover their mouths when they meet a stranger.
Timbuktu emerges from the sand: a scab on the camel-coloured desert.
The houses are mostly mud and clay, sliced off horizontally, north-African style. Sand is everywhere ankle-deep, dappled with footprints. It is like an immense vacant beach where a collection of interlocking cubes has been established, for no apparent reason. The streets and alleyways are dry rivers of sand, and at the end of them begin the dunes of the Sahara in their hypnotic monotony. Walking can become an effort. Sand is always underfoot, even in the mosques and inside the houses, where there is usually no floor, just sand ankle-deep. An exception is the mayor's house. It has a concrete floor. But when he has a meal he lays a blanket outside, and sits cross-legged or reclines, happier on sand.
Sand kept getting in my ears, eyes, nostrils and hair. There was sand in the food. The rice tastes of sand. Biting into the flat bread baked in the mud ovens standing in the alleyways sand can be heard and felt grating on the teeth. During the four days I was in the town there was a steady desert wind, though it never reached the pitch of a sandstorm when, I was told, it would become as dark as night in the middle of the day, bringing all movement to a grinding halt.
Beyond the town the dunes, pale, polished and scalloped by the wind, offer a series of circular patterns rising and falling to infinity. The silence and cleanliness there are impressive. Homesick Bedouin are drawn into the desert at dusk, and can be seen sitting alone on top of a sandhill, or throwing themselves down on the sand like children, then rolling on their backs to gaze up at the sky. Large glossy-black beetles are the only other signs of life on the dunes.
Meanwhile, sand builds up against all vertical surfaces in the town, as the Sahara continues its formidable spread south.page 151
Aside from the green of mimosa and tamarind trees, and a tiny bird dusted a pinkish-red, the Senegal Fire Finch, which darted about as if someone was throwing red-hot coals, Timbuktu has virtually no colour. And because the only solid objects, the houses, are the same dry mud-brown of the surrounding sand, and the same texture, as if the sand has merely continued vertically, Timbuktu has the unusual feeling of not being solid at all. In this way it matched the vagueness of Timbuktu in my imagination. It was solid, a settlement, yet didn't seem to exist at all.
Unlike other towns of west Africa, Timbuktu is instantly Arab and medieval. It is lean. And it has geometry in the air.
Figures are separated by large spaces, as if duplicating the distance between the occasional low bushes in the desert. An additional separation is displayed between the sexes, at least in public. And this double separation has the town appearing half-empty.
A man is rarely seen walking with a woman. The men apparently prefer to sit around in groups sipping mint tea in small glasses, or to hang about outside the dozen or so shops. Some carry daggers; I saw one with an ancient sword. Often two men walking would be holding hands. Now and then one would brush past me seated on a donkey, rhythmically kicking with the heel and making a curious tongue-clicking sound.
The women sit cross-legged in the market or against a wall, offering on a piece of cloth a few lumps of rock-salt or dried fish, herbs and spices, or dyes in tiny envelopes. Others float past balancing a load on their heads—a tin of water, a bundle of firewood—very handsome and quick to smile. It is the women who make all the noise! A group a hundred yards away sound as if they are arguing, though I believe it is their normal way of conversing.
In Timbuktu, as in all of Mali, the practice of female circumcision has hardly diminished. It is supervised by the women in seclusion when a girl turns twelve. They hold the girl down during an operation which is performed by an old woman who is said to know the healing qualities of mud and herbs.
An expressionless young Tuareg explained how marriages were arranged.
Sight unseen a woman was worth twenty camels, and up to fifty camels if she can be inspected and is found to be beautiful. An unseen bride wasn't so bad. 'There is value,' he told me, 'just as you pay for a packet of cigarettes without knowing what is inside.'page 152
I glanced at his wife, now eighteen, pounding maize in the courtyard of his house. Mohammed was pleased with the deal. She had cost his father 25 camels, 12 sheep and some gold.
With the Songhai people enormous earrings of beaten gold worth up to $400-500 are offered instead of the camels.
Timbuktu came into existence around 1100AD when some nomads left an old woman to wait at a well. In Tamacheck—the Tuareg's language—'Tim' is well or water; 'buktu' is woman. Timbuktu grew as the main trading stop for the caravans from the famous rock-salt mines at Taoudenni, 900km to the north. By the sixteenth century it was one of the great intellectual centres of Islam, already rumoured as the mystical city, although still unvisited by a European.
Salt still accounts for something like 50 per cent of the local economy; from Timbuktu it is distributed to Mopti on the Niger and throughout much of west Africa. It is dearer than sea-salt, but people prefer its distinctive taste. Caravans still arrive most days; each camel carrying in a sling on either side a 50-kilo slab which looks like dirty marble. Not long ago 10,000 camels laden with salt would be in a train. Now it is more likely to number 100 or so, occasionally reaching 800 to 1000 camels.
Similarly, at the turn of the century Timbuktu's population was 100,000. Nowadays it is between 30,000 to 40,000, depending on the numbers of nomads in from the deserts and on which aid agency needs to be impressed.
A drought which has already lasted 15 years has strained the composition of Timbuktu.
The Songhai, the black agriculturalists of the Niger, have been resident the longest; next the aristocrats of the region, the Tuareg, comprising warriors, literates and pastoralists (in that interesting social order) who regard the town as merely a mercantile centre—but have been forced in from the dunes by the surrounding famine; then there are the Arabs, including Moors, and the Bedouin—their numbers too have swollen after losing their animals in the drought.
'I wouldn't go to Timbuktu,' a recent traveller had clutched my arm in London. 'It's like the Klondike, full of starving Bedouin. They'll skin you alive.'
But these lean and harshly handsome men were proud and courteous. Shaking hands was like shaking hands with a king: the hand offered limply, page 153 pointing down. Then they would touch their hearts in the traditional way.
The dispossessed nomads can be seen camped around the fringes of town. And here they are among a minority group also flung out by some centrifugal force, the Bella people, descended from slaves, reduced to living in dome shelters like Buckminster Fuller geospheres made from matting, bits of cloth and tin.
Four or five wealthy families in Timbuktu still have slaves; or rather, descendants of slaves when slavery was legal. It was still possible, I was told, to buy or exchange a slave—although there was now little wealth in Timbuktu.
At dawn on the third day I walked out into the desert. It was cold. The dunes were smooth as skin, pale yellow, with sand blowing off the ridges like smoke; and as I waited they gradually shifted to silver, like an immense snowfield, then to grey-brown streaked with shadows. A small caravan was setting out, the Tuareg holding a rope walking ahead with a set expression. High on the second camel sat his wife wrapped entirely in black. A stain of disappointment spread as I took in the scene: almost certainly I would never be seeing this part of the Sahara again.
I wandered inside the town until it became too hot. Women were firing the street-ovens for baking bread. Two goats (male) began fighting, a colliding of horns, drawing an appraising crowd of half-smiling men. I saw a blind man shuffling in step behind a boy. Where his hand held onto the boy's shoulder it had worn a large hole in the shirt. The boy was holding a white chicken. There was a sign on a wall: 'Place of 333 saints.' And a man kneeling with hands on his knees, peering underneath a broken-down Land-Rover, looked as if he was praying to Mecca.
Blue rubber thongs have made noticeable inroads in Timbuktu. Men otherwise wear black sandals with broad straps, or the leather chappals curved up at the front like sledges, or else white slippers without heels. A young man with one leg who somehow scratched out a living making musical instruments told me he broke his leg several years ago and got gangrene. Using hi-tech walking sticks donated by a UN agency he had perfected a way of hobbling at a great rate, at least alongside me.
I climbed the roof of the Djinguereber mosque. The muezzin in electricblue had a thick-lipped voluptuous vanity. He confided that he worked much harder than the imam because he broadcast the prayers five times a page 154 day, and yet he was paid less. The mosque of mud, straw and clay was among the oldest in west Africa and stood up like colossal anthills, with joists and gutters jutting horizontally. Inside I raised my arm against the bats flitting about and realised that coolness and half-darkness are perhaps essential for worship.
The first European to reach Tirnbuktu and live to tell the tale was Rene Caillie in 1828, disguised as a Muslim trader. He stayed only two weeks.
As I examined a plaque set in a wall by the Royal Africa Society to a less successful explorer, Major Alex Gordon Laing ('who, at the cost of his life, reached Timbuktu in 1826') a madman striding past in flapping sandals, jabbering and waving his arms, called out, 'I know nothing about Major Laing I can tell you!'
Of the twenty or so Europeans living in Timbuktu there was a Baptist missionary. For twelve years he had toiled away spreading the Word. But his efforts were almost wiped out by a small incident, probably unknown to him. It happened shortly before I arrived.
A visitor from America had called bringing him messages and things like tinned peaches and zinc cream. To reach Timbuktu he had crossed oceans and rivers, not to mention the harsh interior of Africa. And yet the missionary received him at his gate, and didn't invite him in. Hospitality is almost a law among desert people; and the Baptist's discourtesy spread around the town in minutes.
When I went to see this missionary I found a large house in a bare compound surrounded by a high wall. The gate—the only picket gate in Timbuktu—was padlocked.
I had pictured a gaunt crew-cut figure, in his sixties. But a much younger, solid man, in his early forties, came out wearing shorts and RICHARD printed across the chest of his T-shirt.
Resting an arm on the gate, as if we were chatting in Michigan, he explained the original missionary had retired, and that he had arrived only two months before. He was somewhat haggard, recovering from malaria. When I expressed sympathy Richard shrugged, 'I am spreading the Word of God, I am working for the Lord.'
As we spoke his wife in a cotton dress and holding a child stood looking at us through a screen door.
When I asked how many converts they could claim so far in Timbuktu page 155 with its population of 40,000 he said, 'Twenty.' After twelve years that seemed an amazingly high cost/conversion ratio which must be causing concern back at headquarters.
Later I passed the tiny Catholic church, its cross on the roof positively defiant. There was singing inside. The slow mournful hymn from the small congregation; a tiny building of stubborn appearance.
Opposite—and demonstrating not so much tolerance as indifference—was an Islamic study centre and library. Stored in glass cases, its Koranic texts and commentaries, many of them illuminated, its lives of the Muslim saints, were mostly from the old Timbuktu university.
In the courtyard as sand swirled around my eyes I told a scholar wearing sunglasses I was from Australia.
It was my last day in Timbuktu. And I noticed all the skin was peeling off my fingers and hands.
Speaking through his chayta he of course saw things differently.
'For us,' he said, 'Australia is the Timbuktu—le boutdu monde—the end of the world.'