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Sun, Jan 09, 2000 - Page 9 News List

Millennium influx gives Timbuktu a needed boost

Bypassed for most of the past 500 years, Timbuktu was the scene of an international `invasion' of tourists over the recent millennium holiday period -- surreal and surprising for both locals and tourists, writes a British reporter

By John Vidal  /  THE GUARDIAN , TIMBUKTU

We found Sidi Mohammed just a few hours before midnight. He, his sons, grandsons and 75-camel caravan were 15 days from the salt mines in the middle of the Sahara Desert, and hours from Timbuktu.

We were the first people they had seen in days and a welcome diversion from the monotony of sand and rock.

But for the camels being reloaded with slabs of salt for the last leg of the 650-mile journey, our arrival in a four-wheel drive was the last straw. A great roar filled one of the emptiest places on Earth. It started as a low moan, became an angry neck-shaking shriek and ended in a groan, like 75 foul drains disgorging into a great sewer. The end of the world for cameldom.

"Happy New Year," we said, offering bags of sugar, rice and dried fruit to the camel herdsmen.

Sidi considered us. Yes, he said, it had been a very good year. The price of salt was high. The family had prospered. Nobody had died. The desert was hotter now than in his father's day and there was less food for the camels. But he was happy that the new year was here and he hoped he could celebrate. This night, he said, stuffing an ancient metal pipe with the best Mauretanian tobacco, they would -- God willing -- be in Timbuktu. There would be music and dancing.

Even in Timbuktu, Mali, a byword for remoteness, isolation and mystery, the millennium was celebrated. For the past three years, Ramadan (the Islamic month of fasting) and the Christian new year have coincided, merging the two most important times in both religions.

The millennium has not always been kind to Timbuktu. The Niger River has shifted 15 miles north, the sands dunes are at the gates and at least one of the mosques is being buried. There is more sand on the streets than on most California beaches, sand in the shops, in the food, in the bedrooms and in the hair.

The days when Timbuktu was a center of African trade and Islamic learning are over, and it is now one of the remotest places in one of the three poorest countries in the world. Most people are unemployed and the average wage is less than US$1 a day. There may be great pride in the tolerance of so many tribes living in the city, but there are still slaves, still the most dreadful persecutions.

But a sense of mystery remains in Timbuktu. What, for example, happened to the 150 Italian tourists who arrived on a charter flight one afternoon to celebrate the millennium? They had no rooms and were not expected to enjoy two nights with the mosquitoes in the main square.

Timbuktu has become a place of the American and European imagination, but the reality is sometimes too much. A party of French pensioners arrived before New Year's Eve all but drank one hotel dry, and then 75 US Peace Corps volunteers in Mali floated in on a riverboat. They were last seen being led by a tribesman towards the sand dunes.

"Are there showers and modern toilets in the desert?" asked an elderly French woman who had been told to live in a tent outside the city.

"I don't know," replied Omar, her camel-driving "hotelier" for the night. "It's possible, madam."

Timbuktu, bypassed for most of the past 500 years, cannot handle the invasion, but it is Christmas for the one travel agency, the few official guides, the children and many shopkeepers. Cigarettes ran out and increased in price by the hour. A herbalist who normally deals in snake oil and potency cures was offered to cure "la fievre 2000." The largest hotel sent to the capital, Bamako, for Christmas decorations.

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