Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Great Thirst. Part Two - Timbuktu

I awoke to a still dawn.  The wind had died peacefully in the night and the dust had settled, leaving me to admire a clear, crisp, salmon pink sunrise from my sleeping bag.  Carol and Susan were already up and had produced a welcome breakfast of porridge and bananas.  Once we'd consumed that along with buckets of hot, strong coffee we set off once more along the Niger river towards Timbuktu.  The morning proved to be one of delight and frustration in equal measure.  Without the wind the river was glassy smooth and there was plenty of bird-life to keep us entertained.  Pelicans glided along the water in stately procession, yellow billed storks poked about in the shallows and majestic black and white African fish eagles gave voice to their eerie "kyow-kow-kow" call from some of the taller trees.  Best of all were the Abyssinian rollers with their stunning sky blue, navy blue and rich chestnut plumage.  They flew all around the truck, skimming the ground and swooping for insects.  There were carmine bee eaters too, emerging from their nest holes in the river bank.  They too were out for a breakfast of insects.  Flocks of them perched in the trees at the river's edge, their red, orange, yellow and green feathers glowing like exploding fireworks as they caught the sunlight.

The frustration came later that morning when we encountered a series of soft dunes that the truck couldn't cope with.  Every few hundred yards we'd have to unload the heavy steel sand ladders, dig the wheels out of the axle deep sand and shove the four ton truck with all our might while the wheels spun and threw hot sand into our sweating faces.  Seven or eight episodes of this later I was beginning to doubt that we'd reach Timbuktu that day.  We did though.  Actually we didn't so much reach Timbuktu as it seemed to ambush us.  One moment we were struggling through low dunes, the next we were driving along Timbuktu's main street, which funnily enough also consisted mostly of low dunes.  There were a few tawny coloured buildings.  Single story affairs made from mud and straw and corrugated iron.  This was all that remained of a once mighty trading centre.

Deeper into the town we found a modern hotel, built in what I assume was meant to be traditional Dogon style.  The portly French manager told us that we were welcome to set up camp in the hotel grounds and we spent the evening drinking expensive warm beer in the air-conditioned comfort of the lounge.  Two Aussie lads and myself decided we'd get a triple room for the night, thinking that we'd sleep better in a real bed with air-conditioning.  However, half an hour after we'd turned in the generator failed, the air-con gave a death rattle and the room quickly grew suffocatingly hot.  I gave up on the dubious comfort of the bed and went to sleep the rest of the night in the truck with some of the others who hadn't trusted the generator from the start.

Shortly after we'd arrived that afternoon the Frenchman had appointed a tall, indigo clad Tuareg (predictably called Ahmed), to keep inquisitive children away from our camp.  Ahmed was an intimidating character.  Well over six feet tall, wiry, with piercing black eyes and a long hooked nose.  I saw him demonstrate his strength to the kids by picking up a large goat by the throat with one hand and rendering it unconscious but still alive with just the right amount of pressure with his powerful fingers.  The children were suitably impressed and kept away from our camp all night.  In the morning he was still awake and alert and looking much more dignified than anyone who has been awake all night has a right to.  Over breakfast he invited us to his camp a couple of kilometres away.  We accepted and he told us to be ready in one hour and then walked away into the white dunes to the west.  Exactly an hour later he returned and beckoned us to follow him.

In a hollow beyond the first dune five camels were kneeling in the sand.  A small group of Targui tribesmen milled about impatiently - all dressed in the same indigo robes at Ahmed.  It was going to be two to a camel.  Ridiculously, the two heaviest of our group, Shin - a quiet Japanese and I were chosen for the smallest camel and as the poor beast laboriously rocked itself to it's feet with the two of us clinging to it's bony back a fight broke out amongst some of the other Targui.  Apparently it was over who's camel should carry whom.  Punches were thrown, guttural threats were made and all the time our Tuareg was leading us away from the group into the Sahara, under an empty blue sky .  Inevitably I was reminded of the treacherous reputation the Targui of the past had earned themselves.  They'd lied to, cheated and butchered hundreds of infidel explorers and missionaries who'd tried to cross or settle in the Sahara, though it has to be said that many had only themselves to blame for their fate, for they'd tried to exploit the tribesmen.  Occasionally they'd play along with the missionaries, letting them believe they were being converted to Christianity before falling on them and slaughtering them.  A comforting thought for Shin and I as we swayed across the dunes away from Timbuktu towards a Targui camp that was somewhere out there in the desert under a broiling, glaring sun.


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