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Day 53: Timbuktu

Timbuktu, Mali 
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Fresh bread from the street ovens is one of the pleasures of Timbuktu.
Michael Palin - SaharaUp at seven. In the courtyard of the Relais Azalai a little bird, crown and breast dusted red, skitters amongst the lacework of bougainvillea bushes, tired and dry in the already intense heat. A boy is watering the mottled garden, valiantly but hopelessly, with a thin, trickling hose.

Reception is quiet. The beady-eyed salesmen who patrolled it last night, robes full of unmissable bargains, are gone. A solitary figure in crumpled blue and white robe lies curled up on one of the chairs, eyes shut, breathing deeply. Suddenly, without warning, his hands shoot out and with a resounding crack he clamps them either side of a mosquito. He examines his victim briefly and settles back to sleep.

It turns out that this is Mohammed, a camel owner who is taking us out into the desert to meet a caravan returning from the north and to help us find one with whom we can travel on from here.

He pulls himself wearily off the chair and greets us all with a handshake, though he says nothing. It's only later, when I hear him talking with a friend, that I realise his voice has almost gone. The words squeeze out in a husky croak, and I wonder if this is a price he's paying for a life lived in the scouring sands of the Sahara.

A few miles out of town, past the nomad encampments, where the sand is dark with sheep and goat droppings, I climb to the top of a dune for my first sight of a camel train. A long, elegant procession breaks the perfect symmetry of blue sky and brown sand as it picks its way towards us. There are thirty or forty animals, all single-humped Arabian camels, properly called dromedaries, roped together in single file. I try to imagine what a sight it would have been in the heyday of trans-Saharan caravans, when 20,000 camels crossed the desert at a time. Today's modest column is led by a wiry Touareg with his black headdress unwound and draped around his neck. A sprawling herd of goats crosses their path. Industrious dung beetles scuttle about in the sand beneath my feet. A man in a vivid yellow robe appears on the crest of a nearby dune, accompanied by a young boy. He watches us watching him, and yawns. This must be the nearest the Sahara gets to a rush hour.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 53
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Timbuktu
  • Book page no: 158

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