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All The Way Out In Timbuktu!

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Kevin hangin' with the locals
Timbuktu (Tombouctou), which was once the center of much activity, now seems to be in the middle of nowhere! It took us three whole days of cruising up the Niger River just to arrive at this town located at the edge of the Sahara Desert.

I don't know if I've ever been in a place that felt as isolated as Timbuktu, where we spent two whole days. Only 15,000 people live there and I noticed that we were some of the only tourists around. Probably the most noticeable aspect of the city is that it is just on the edge of the Sahara Desert and is surrounded by sand. Approximately 80% of Mali is desert or semi-desert and we were right there in it. Everywhere we walked we found ourselves strolling down pathways and streets of sand. It began to feel more like walking through a desert with small buildings than in a city near the desert. Sometimes the streets were so full of sand that we had to step down off of the road to enter a building. Sand was also an integral part of the food we ate in Timbuktu. All of the bread served to us had sand in it as well as the bread-like pastries we bought for the pinasse ride. Sand got into my shoes and my clothing whenever a small gust of wind would sweep by.

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Kevin and trusty 12 year-old guide, Mohamodou<img src=
In Timbuktu we had more than enough guides to show us around the city. There were only two hotels in the city and we stayed in the cheaper of the two although they were both expensive. We were mostly in the company of "Les deux petits guides" (the two little guides) from our hotel who were cousins named Hamada (14 years) and Mahamodou (12 years). Both names come from the Islamic prophet Mohammed, which in its various forms is perhaps the most popular name in the whole world.

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Hamada and Bamoi leading us through the streets of Timbuktu
We were also joined by Hamada's older brother Bamoi who explained a lot of the city's history to us. All three of these knowledgeable boys were of the Songhai people and communicated in their own Songhai language when talking to one another. However, the two brothers also spoke fluent French and English when speaking to us. Hamada really enjoys conversing in English and often stays late after school for his own amusement just to practice with his English teacher.

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OK, I'm taking a break
It's hard to imagine heavy rainfall when you're in the desert but, even in Timbuktu we were definitely caught in Mali's rainy-season. We spent our first evening in the pouring rain and ate dinner by candlelight because the entire town was without electricity for hours. The next morning many of the streets were flooded since they have no drainage system at all; mostly because the streets are nothing but sand. To get by one street I had to climb a six-foot wall that was very narrow and walk for about 20 yards along the top of it.

Some of the local boys decided to follow me along this wall-walk and they tried their best to scare me into falling off of the wall. They threw rocks down into the water below which would make a large splash and I almost lost my balance. They must have found it very amusing to see me walk so slowly and cautiously along the same wall that they're most likely able to dance on.

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Where is everybody?
By mid-day the sun was already shining brightly and working on drying up the town. In fact the sun was so hot that it was difficult to walk for a long time without taking a break or sitting in the shade to drink a lot of water. The people of Timbuktu must have been inside their cool homes made of mud because many of the streets were empty. Only the market was busy with vendors selling just about everything you'd be able to find all the way out in Timbuktu. The city had a lonely feeling but the market was a reminder of its importance as a post for trade routes throughout history. It took years for Europeans to cross the Sahara and reach the city and only this century did the first American D. W. Berty succeed in doing the same (1912). Didn't they realize that they could've just taken a pinasse up the Niger River like we explorers do on the World Trek?


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Jasmine - City of Sand
Kevin - "Chez Tuareg" - House of Tuareg, A Desert Tea Party
Monica - Contact: A View From the Other Side
Making A Difference - Who Will Mop up Their Mess? Shell and Chevron Wreak Havoc in Nigeria
Monica - Pirogue, a Traditional Boat Ride Up River

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