700 years ago the king of Timbuktu passed through Cairo and other cities on his way to visit Mecca. With him were 80 camel-loads of gold. Ever since Europeans tried to reach this unknown and forbidden city, expecting a city paved with gold. There were two major problems: no European really knew where the city was, or if it even existed, and the city was banned to non-Muslims, the punishment for unwelcome visitors being death. Things heated up in the early 1800s when a French society offered an enormous cash prize to the first European to get to Timbuktu and back to Europe alive.
In 1826 Gordon Laing, a scottish man, disguised himself as a Muslim and after two years of travel through the Sahara, and sporting numerous wounds made it to Timbuktu. However soon after leaving he was hunted down and killed.
In 1828 Rene Caillie, a Frenchman, also disguised himself as a Muslim, learnt Arabic, and spent a year travelling alone through West Africa to Timbuktu. He found a poor, rundown and unimportant village, and was so disappointed that he left less than two weeks later to return to France and claim the prize.
In 2006, Steve McLeod disguised himself as a grubby backpacker, learnt nothing, and spent a month crossing the Sahara to Timbuktu. He found a drab, dusty, dirty town, inhabited by people who seem to be a cross of Arab and Black people, as well as French package tourists who had flown to Timbuktu and were staying in airconditioned hotels with televisions, and eating Italian meals at European-style restaurants. He stayed two days then returned the way he came.
I had been forewarned that Timbuktu was spectacularly unimpressive, and it's true. It used to be an important trade city of 100,000 people, located where the fertile area surrounding the Niger river meets the Sahara, where slaves and gold from West Africa passed through on their way to Asia and Europe. It had one of the most important universities in the Islamic world. But when Europeans started sailing ships around Africa and to India and the Americas, Timbuktu's trade dried up. The mud brick buildings were easily destroyed by the yearly rains and sand storms. Far more interesting today is the voyage there.
The last part of my trip to Timbuktu was via an old Landcruiser over dirt roads to the wide Niger river. Here I got on a ferry and travelled a few kilometres upstream across the river, passing fishing villages where the squat, box-like houses are made of mud-bricks, and have to be constantly repaired during the wet season. Utterly poor people living in these villages wear second-hand clothes from America and Europe, usually ripped and dirty, and greet anyone passing through with demands for food, money, pens, or biscuits. After the ferry another 10 kilometres by road took me to Timbuktu. There are plenty of aid organisations helping with food and health in Timbuktu (and all over Mali), but they seem to have created an unhealthy situation where local people assume white people hand out lots of stuff freely to anyone. So as I wandered around Timbuktu, if I dared to stand still for a minute or two, I would soon by surrounded by children and teenagers expecting stuff. It got pretty tiring pretty quickly. This happened even when I walked out of Timbuktu into the sand dunes that surround it on three sights. I don't know where they appeared from - it's like the just spring out of the sand, in their raggedy clothes, ready to annoy me.
The main attraction in Timbuktu is the tourist office, where a small man with enormous glasses crouches over a desk and his almost dry inkpad. He gives Timbuktu stamps in the passports of anyone passing through, which ultimately turns out to be the number one reason people give for going there.