The camel ride to the camp took half an hour. Going up the dunes we had to clamp our legs tightly around the camel to prevent ourselves from toppling off the back, and then on the downward slope we had to lean back as far as we could to stop ourselves tipping over the animals head. It wasn't a comfortable journey in the searing heat, but we reached the Tuareg camp both uninjured and unmolested. Rubbing our battered backsides we were ushered towards the nearest tent as the rest of the group arrived. The camp consisted of half a dozen semi-permanent large goat skin canopy tents. The sides were pegged up to allow the free flow of air and as we stooped to enter Ahmed shooed away a few goats to make room for us all.
There were several indigo clad men already inside, their dark skin stained blue by the dye. These were true blue men of the desert. There were no women but Ahmed assured us that they were making themselves useful collecting water. I had thought theirs was a matriarchal society. Having settled cross legged on the sandy floor, hot, sweet tea was served in small glasses. Those of us who could speak French chatted politely with the tribesman, while those of us that couldn't just sat patiently and enjoyed the shade and the tea. Then, pleasantries over, it was down to business. With a nod and a quiet word from Ahmed a blue robed youth left the tent and returned some minutes later with his arms full of souvenirs that we were obviously expected to buy in return for the tribes hospitality. These items were placed on a rug in front of us. There were long, curved knives encased in black, camel leather sheaths, silver bracelets, rings, beads and other basically worthless trinkets. We all purchased something after what seemed like hours of tedious haggling but I still treasure my Tuareg knife.
Back in town, our backside still numb from the return camel ride, we trooped off into the dusty streets to explore. Shin and I were soon accosted by a group of small boys whom we employed as guides and we didn't regret it. They gave us a fine tour, showing us the houses where early European explorers had lived including Rene Caille, who in the eighteenth century become the first white man to reach Timbuktu for many years.. His was an especially hazardous voyage for he had travelled disguised as a young Arab studying the Koran with a group of Mohammedan tribesmen who would certainly have murdered him had they discovered his true identity. His house in Timbuktu was no different to any of the others except that it bore a plaque bearing his name. It was mud built and had carved wooden shutters on the windows.
The boys then showed us the main place of worship - The Mosque de Sankore. Anywhere else it would have been considered tiny and unimportant, tucked away as it was, down an unimpressive side street. Yet the boys were proud of it and we tried to appear suitably impressed as we took photos of the short, stubby minaret that pointed towards the blue sky like a brown thumb.
And so that was Timbuktu. There was a hotel without guests and a supermarket without stock where a slow fan stirred the turbid air, cooling the flies that searched in vain for something to eat or lay their eggs on. An attempt had been made in the early eighties to make Timbuktu a destination for French tourists in the same way that Tamanrasset in Algeria had become popular until the troubles started there. In the early eighties one flight a week flew in from France with tourists and UN staff, but one day the plane crashed on landing, killing everyone on board and nothing had landed at the airport since. The town was dying a slower death than the poor souls on the plane.
By the time we returned to the truck, preparations were under way for our departure and soon Timbuktu was behind us. We passed the airport on the way out of town, and there was the blackened wreck of the jet that finished Timbuktu's short stint as a tourist mecca. Then as suddenly as Timbuktu had crept up on us, we were back in the desert, stuck up to our axles in soft sand, cursing as we heaved the sand ladders about and wearily dug the wheels free for the hundredth time. Timbuktu, I reflected as I sat by the camp fire that night had pretty much lived up to my expectations. It was desperately poor, unlovely and totally forgettable and yet I was excited at the thought that for the rest of my life I could claim to have actually visited this legendary place, and let's face it, there's no doubt that the name Timbuktu still conjures up a certain enigmatic aura.