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Day 51: Timbuktu

The River Niger, Mali 
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Last hours on the River Niger. Sunset, with fishermen, as we near Kabara, the port for Timbuktu.
Michael Palin - SaharaOur arrival coincides with one of the very finest African sunsets, perhaps the best I've witnessed on this journey. In a huge sky, day and night are for a moment perfectly balanced. The sun going down on one side, as a full moon rises on the other. Colours change slowly and majestically. Light blue becomes pink-tinged grey and minutes later, as we grate against the gravel bank, half the sky is lemon and the other half is violet.

A hippo burps in the distance and above us a stream of bats swerves out across the sky. This is why I leave home. Moonlight bathes the groves of trees beside the good metalled road that runs the 14 miles from Kabara into Timbuktu. At the city limits the tarmac gives out and leaves us to the sand. I crane my head around to see if I can see anything fabulous, but all I see is a roundabout with a lumpy concrete monument and battered sign welcoming us to 'Timbuktu, City of Three Hundred and Thirty-Three Saints'.

First impressions - interiors lit by bare bulbs, donkeys swaying down the street with bales of hay ballooning around them, tall figures in indigo robes caught in the glare of our headlights.

Our hotel, the Relais Azalai, is on a low rise on the western edge of town, overlooking what until recently was a river. We unload and carry our bags in through a now familiar line of salesmen, only this time they are Touareg, lean, olive-skinned faces swathed in black and indigo headdresses. And they're not just outside the hotel; the staff at reception are also swathed in black or blue headdresses. This is the first sign that Timbuktu is not like other places. Up to now, nomads have always been on the fringes of urban life. In Timbuktu they run the place.

Enjoy a few luxuries - a shower, cold beers, a hot meal and a bed. My air-conditioning sounds like an overladen truck on a very steep hill. But what the hell, I'm in Timbuktu.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 51
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Timbuktu
  • Book page no: 154

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