Timbuktu on a moped

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Timbuktu on a moped

Postby Micronaut » Wed Apr 12, 2006 7:47 pm


The road to Timbuktu - a leisurely journey to the edge of the world

By Ulrike Koltermann, DPA

Timbuktu (ANTARA News) - Mali's capital, Bamako, is as hazy as London in November, when the harmattan, a dry, dusty Sahara wind, blows.

Rattly yellow taxis and put-putting mopeds take passengers to the bus station. Men, many in turbans, wearing floor-length garments and women sporting colourful dresses with matching headdresses jostle in front of the ticket counters.

Those who manage to shove a fistful of money through one of the barred windows get a slip of paper stating the route. Each kilometre costs about two euro cents.

No buses go to Timbuktu. The very name of the place sounds like the edge of the world. In the 15th century, the caravan town on the Sahara's southern rim was the centre of a huge Islamic empire whose legendary wealth came from trading salt.

In southern Morocco on the edge of the Sahara, a road sign states in Arabic and French "Tombouctou 52 days .... by camel". It is popular with Tourists who like to have their photographs taken in front of it. The road vanishes into the desert behind them.

Getting to Timbuktu via Mali is easier than through the Sahara, but an adventure all the same. The first leg of the journey is from Bamako to Mopti, 640 kilometres to the north-east.

When the bus is ready to go, passengers' names are called out. All reply "present," as though it were roll call. A helper marks each piece of baggage with a number and tosses them into the air. The baggage man on the roof of the bus catches and stacks each piece.

The pile of baggage ends up being at least half as high as the bus itself. Apart from suitcases and bags, there are mattresses, plastic canisters, live chickens in cages, and sacks full of charcoal or onions.

As we board, we pass a yellowed sign over the driver's seat saying, in German: "Esteemed passengers, we request that you present fare reductions to the driver without being asked." Aha - another one of the numerous vehicles taken out of service in Europe. In Africa they continue, often for decades, to transport people and goods.

On the outskirts of Bamako, we encounter the first checkpoint, which announces itself with speed bumps and old oil drums painted red and white. Stops can last 10 minutes or an hour and a half, depending on the driver's charm and negotiating skills.

A horde of checkpoint vendors storms the bus while our driver negotiates the amount of "jetons", as bribe money is called in Mali, with underpaid officials.

The vendors thrust their hands with snacks for the road, through the windows and doors. The offerings include peanuts, strips of papaya, sesame bars, and hibiscus or ginger-flavoured ice water in bulging, little plastic bags tied with a knot. Beggar boys, armed with empty cans on straps, run up crying "cadeau, cadeau (alms)!"

There are plenty of reasons to stop along the way. When passengers need to relieve themselves, the driver produces one of the brightly striped plastic jugs, shaped like a tea kettle, that can be found all over the country.

The men also want to stop around noon and in the evening to pray, whether in a small mosque by the roadside or on plastic mats they carry with them, which they spread out neatly alongside one another, pointing towards Mecca.

The harmattan veils much of the landscape. About all that can be seen in the haze of desert dust are the powerful trucks and fine branches of baobab trees. The sun hangs in the sky like a pale, full moon.

Men laze in deck chairs outside many of the low mud buildings. In good-sized villages, youths gather around a footballer with crudely carved wooden figures. The sky is pitch black at half past six.

Twelve hours after departure, the bus arrives in Mopti.

The next morning, Keita, a young man in a bright pink boubou and matching trousers, radiates optimism. He is assembling passengers for the journey on to Timbuktu.

"We've got just about everybody," he says, a sentence he repeats every hour or two. For those waiting, he makes strong green tea with a lot of sugar, prepared in a small enamel pot on a tiny coal-fired sheet-metal stove.

On the roadside along the Niger River, women walk to the market in Mopti. On their heads are large bowls made from gutted pumpkins. Some of the women have coloured the area around their mouths dark blue with indigo.

A man rides by on a bicycle, chickens hanging heads-down on both sides of the handlebars. Occasionally, a horse-drawn cart clatterspast en route to Mopti with a big family from the countryside in a brightly painted trailer.

Late in the afternoon, Keita summons his helper to load the roof of the car, an old Land Cruiser. The letters on the radiator read "OTA" - the first three, "TOY," have fallen off. There is a jumble of wires where the radio once was.

The car's tyres are nearly bald, but there is a spare. We will need it soon. Among the 14 passengers who squeeze in somehow are several turbaned Tuaregs, only their eyes are uncovered, a marabout, a kind of traditional psychiatrist, and a young mother with an infant and five-year-old boy.

Finally, at sundown, we get under way. After several kilometres we have to stop, however. The driver has realized he forgot his mobile telephone. He flags down a moped rider, negotiates with him briefly, then hops on the moped to return to Mopti for the telephone.

The first spot of trouble is no bother for the travellers, who have a chance to stretch their legs and lie down in the fine desert sand. Later, however, the car seemed to act up just when you had worked out with the person sitting beside you who would lean on whom to sleep.

We stop for dinner before entering the real desert. The silhouette of a mud mosque stands out against the night sky. Its supporting beams protrude from the thick minaret like spikes on a cactus. A young girl stirs a large pot on the fire, then hands out rice and tomato sauce. The men gather around one plastic bowl, the women around another. We dip bread into the sauce and eat with our right hands directly out of the bowl.

The food is hardly visible in the light of the only petroleum lamp. There is a restaurant in Paris, they say, where you pay a lot of money to eat in the dark. The taste is more intense when the food cannot be seen.

Around midnight, the trip is interrupted again. We have reached a Niger tributary, and the ferryman has long since returned to his village. Some of the passengers lie down to sleep on the riverbank.

Those without a blanket stay in the car to escape the night's chill.

Gliding down the river at daybreak are pinnaces, long, slender boats propelled by pushing wooden poles against the river's bed. The nearby village awakens. Cocks crow. Donkeys bray. Women fetch water from the river and balance it on their heads in large clay jugs.

We stop in a village called Niafunke for breakfast, which consists of rice and fish. It is the home of Ali Farka Toure, the musician who made "Mali blues" internationally famous. At the end of his career, Toure was elected Niafunke's mayor. Its small, village hall was built with German development aid. Toure died in March, just before he was to release a new solo album.

It is a wonder our driver finds the way, which takes us over sand dunes covered with broom bushes. Time after time, the tyres spin helplessly in the sand and everyone has to get out and push. Progress is slow.

Early in the afternoon, we come to a stony track flanked by red-and-white milestones with "Timbuktu" on them. The sun beats down on the car. The temperature is at least 40 degrees Celsius. Thirty kilometres to go. The old Land Cruiser comes to a halt again. Another breakdown? No, this time it has run out of petrol.

No one is angry or irritated. "Wallahi!" "Oh God, oh God", exclaims the young mother and breaks into peals of laughter. She sits down in the shade of a thorny acacia and begins to nurse her infant.

After about an hour, a mercilessly overloaded pickup comes by and takes our driver, who climbs onto the roof with an empty canister, to Timbuktu. Four hours later, he returns in a lorry and pours the petrol into the tank using a slit-open plastic bottle.

Perhaps it was a stroke of good fortune that we reach Timbuktu in the friendly light of evening. The low mud houses with their rounded edges are bathed in a red glow. Children ride donkeys in the narrow, sandy streets. We have covered the estimated 900 kilometres to Timbuktu in about 24 hours.

Not much remains of the old caravan town's wealth. Tourists who arrive by airplane for a day are often disappointed. "In Timbuktu at last! Another dashed dream of my youth," wrote one visitor in the guest book of the Heinrich Barth House in Timbuktu.

Born in Hamburg, Barth pursued ethnological studies in Timbuktu, under the assumed name Abdel Karim, for several months at the end of the 19th century. Timbuktu today has a mobile telephone network and internet cafe.

But on the edge of town, where the sand dunes begin, camel caravans still bring slabs of salt from the Sahara. Some men pray there at nightfall in one of the world's simplest mosques a semicircle of stones in the sand that point towards Mecca. (*)
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