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Day 51: Timbuktu

Michael Palin - SaharaIn 1806, Mungo Park, ten years after becoming the first white man to see the River Niger, was within a whisker of adding to his reputation by reaching the legendary, remote and fabulous city of Timbuktu.

Unfortunately, the tranquil approach we're making tonight is markedly different from the conditions in which he came here. Everything had gone wrong for Park on his second visit to Africa, and Sanche de Gramont, in The Strong Brown God, sums up his problem succinctly: 'He was taking a makeshift boat pieced together from two rotten Bambara canoes down an uncharted river whose banks were occupied by Christian-hating Tuaregs and rapacious blacks.'

Not surprisingly, Park didn't stop to look around, and it was another twenty years before a fellow Scot, Alexander Gordon Laing, approaching from the desert to the north, became the first European to reach Timbuktu for nearly 300 years.

Neither survived to tell their tales.

Timbuktu remains well off any beaten track. There is an airstrip from which tourists are flown in and out, but it remains a city at the end of the road, centre of an administrative region but not much else. Yet its appeal remains almost as potent as it was for Laing and those who risked their lives to follow him. To the almost certain puzzlement of the locals, Westerners remain drawn to Timbuktu like moths to a candle. No other city remains as synonymous with the fabulous, the lonely and the remote. Timbuktu, la mystérieuse, they call it in the tourist brochures - a Holy Grail for the adventurous traveller.

It's hard to remain unexcited as we glide slowly in to the little inlet at Kabara, the port for Timbuktu itself.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 51
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Timbuktu
  • Book page no: 153

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