African Logistics Almost Silenced Wedding Bells

Leaving Tombouctou was a nail-biting experience for the author

He was right. Halice said we should have gotten a camel.

Here we were stuck in Tombouctou (formerly Timbuktu) in 20 degrees C in the middle of the Malian desert. The next flight out of town was in two weeks. We were bumped off the one leaving the next day that we were booked on, and I had to get out quickly to get married and get back to work in South Africa.

An expression that foreigners employ when such scenarios arise in this part of this world, as they often do, is "WAWA" - West Africa wins again. West Africa was definitely winning here. But photographer Chris Collingridge and I were determined to gain the advantage.

We had come here to report on Tombouctou, that legendary trading hub of times past.

In the 15th century, it was one of Africa's most exotic centers of religious scholarship, renowned throughout the Islamic world. It was a cosmopolitan oasis, busy with camel caravans that ferried salt from the Sahara and gold destined for Europe. Today, Tombouctou is isolated and dusty, having slid into a decline after a devastating sacking in 1591, which was then accelerated by French colonialization at the end of the 19th century.

Because of its remoteness, most people fly in and out on small aircraft known for their unreliability on a continent of capricious schedules. Everyone had warned us that it could take days to get into Tombouctou. They didn't tell us how much harder it was to get out.

But it was worth going. Mali is one of Africa's prime tourist sites and Tombouctou is its crown. Nothing will ever completely erase Tombouctou's mysterious appeal, not even the unabating heat. Intrepid travelers who do not mind broken air conditioners and dust storms in the searing heat will be rewarded with a fantastic trip to an ancient, unspoiled civilization.

Halice, dressed in his Tuareg nomadic blue robes, proved to be an ideal guide true to his name (which means "man of the desert").

He brought us into cool mosques molded out of the sand-like adobe, and to markets, where venders squatting under tents sold mint tea, fabrics of every color blue, daggers, and salt.

He led us through the sands on camel-back to visit an elder in the desert, guided by the stars. The animals seemed to know their way without prodding as they loped awkwardly in the night. The chief reclined on cushions, as he treated us to an elaborate tea ceremony, pouring it from a foot high, back and forth between the cup and pot.

The peacefulness made it tempting to stay a few more days, but duty and departure called.

This was when frustration supreme set in. After two trips to the airport, it was clear we were not going to get on any flight in the near future. No amount of begging or money would make the airline staff budge.

We were stuck.

Tombouctou is accessible only by barge once a week to Mopti, the nearest town of note several days' journey away. Halice was not joking when he mentioned that we should have gone by camel.

Undeterred, we sought a ride on a United Nation's flight. The helpful head of the mission suggested we go to the airport at 4 p.m. to wait for a 5 p.m. flight. But when we arrived as agreed, the man at the control tower had bad news.

"That plane left at 2 p.m.," he said. "It came in early. We called the UN but they were at lunch. So it left."

Chris noticed a Russian Antonov cargo plane sitting on the tarmac.

"What about that one? he asked. "Forget it," said Halice. "That hasn't flown for five years."

He followed my eyes to another aircraft lying near the tarmac. "Don't even think about that one. It crashed around 1985."

We despondently went back to the hotel where the staff gave us knowing looks. They'd seen plenty of stranded travelers before.

It seemed even the birds couldn't fly. As we discussed the difficulties of being airborne in Tombouctou, the glass window in the hotel cafe shook with a thud. A red finch had slammed into the window and plopped onto the ground.

"Maybe you should go by land," said Halice, watching the stunned bird struggle back onto its feet.

We decided to do just that. Two friends of Halice offered to drive us in their Nissan 4X4 to Mopti, a major town halfway to the capital, Bamako. They warned it could take two days, but that seemed preferable to waiting a couple of weeks.

One of the men wore a pair of flashy Rally Arts coveralls, which we interpreted to mean they meant speed. Within minutes, we had slung our backpacks onto the back seat, filled up with petrol, and headed out of Tombouctou.

From the moment the Nissan sped off, any regrets evaporated. About 20 minutes out of town we found ourselves on the banks of the Niger River. Wooden dug-out canoes, 100-feet-long with helms brightly painted with red and yellow, maneuvered past rice paddies. Hippos lurked in the reeds. We drove the car onto a huge barge and glided past mud villages and nomad campfires as the sun went down.

When we reached the other bank, the desert disappeared almost immediately into mud and waist-deep water. After five hours of driving without a sight of humans, we reached a hamlet at midnight. Villagers offered us water in clay pots and reed mats to sleep on under the cool immense sky above.

The next morning I awoke at 4 a.m. with a goat munching on my hair. We splashed water on our faces, gulped some biscuits, and set off again. The landscape almost immediately evolved from flat sandy plains to hills and signs of trampled trees - the trademarks of elephant devastation.

We were now in the fabled Dogon country, an animist area favored by collectors and anthropologists for its unique wattle villages. The conical dwellings are adorned with wooden doors, carved with images of people and animals.

We got out of the car at one village and climbed to a cave, pointed out by villagers as the site of initiation rites. The wall was brilliantly painted with red-and-black geometric patterns. Chris was careful about taking pictures, as many Dogons believe a photograph will steal their soul.

We finally reached Mopti in the early afternoon. The town seemed like a metropolis after two days of driving in the wilderness - traffic lights, diesel fumes, shops, people wearing shoes, no animals, just cars and more cars. The Nissan broke down just as we bade farewell to the drivers. My last glimpse of our travel companions was of legs clad in Rally coveralls protruding from under the vehicle.

I thought I heard the other driver murmur: "It would have been easier with a camel."

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