Travel: Songs of bitter experience

The taxi sped down a narrow tarred road, its edges lacy with white drifting sand. Ahead was the first line of houses, straw-grey in the sun. We entered a wide sandy boulevard, and continued on until it narrowed and snaked about in the old part of town. Carrying on between shuttered alleys of mud and stone houses, we came to a low, tree-studded hill on the far side and a modern hotel built in the Sudanese style. The grounds were leafy, and there was a central courtyard bordered with flowers and crowned with a towering ghost gum tree.

Timbuktu began humbly around 1,000 years ago as a Tuareg seasonal camp - its name taken from the slave woman the tribes left in charge whenever they went back into the desert. At its zenith in the 15th and 16th centuries, it was a thriving city of 100,000 people, its universities, libraries, judges and doctors famed across the Islamic world. All this came to an abrupt end in 1591 with the arrival of a Moroccan expeditionary force and the establishment of the sea trade routes down the west African coast. Many of the European explorers who attempted to reach it paid with their lives but, by then, the mystique of Timbuktu had gripped the European imagination.

Today, we wandered down the empty, dun-coloured streets in the sun, past cracked old mosques and clustered houses that looked like sets from a cowboy movie but for their carved, Moroccan-style, studded wooden doors. I had half-expected a harsh and unwelcoming atmosphere in this frontier town, but there was no paranoia, no sense of tight security or of watching eyes. The pan-Malian harmony abided and there was a welcome absence of street hustlers and the eternal "ca va cent francs?" begging children.

We were obliged to register at the police station, where our passports were impressed with the "Tombouctou" stamp, and went on to the post office. I had expected to find mail waiting at Poste Restante, but nothing had come, except for the four letters still being kept from my first attempted visit here, 18 months before. The town felt organic, cellular: it was like strolling inside a spiral seashell. But there was a palpable presence here too, an uncompromising one. Timbuktu retained its power and its secrets, its desert Torah, but this was not revealed, certainly not to the casual visitor anyway. We sleepwalked through the sandy maze while Timbuktu brooded within a hard shell of mud.

Returning to the hotel in the late afternoon, a blue-robed and turbaned Tuareg stood at the bar soliciting camel rides out into the sunset. He was a lean, sun-dried man, and he bargained very hard. I wasn't even sure I felt up to riding camels over dunes, but a price was reached and we agreed to go.

We went with him to the line of sandhills outside the hotel, climbed on the camels, and set off with his two sons leading. Along the way, Mr Ibrahim mentioned how poor the Tuareg people were now, how bad the seasons had been and low the goat numbers, and suggested that for an extra payment the women of the village would sing for us. We negotiated as the camels plodded over the rosy-white Saharan sands, hanging on gamely, our feet cross-braced on the camels' necks.

After a half-hour or so we saw the first signs of a camp up ahead. Boys ranged through the dunes while slender women in blue-black robes carried firewood towards a scattering of tents.

Dismounting from the camels - mine bellowing profanities, resolutely refusing to release me - Mr Ibrahim directed us past a dark tent where a woman of 20 or so breastfed a baby, to a semi-enclosure of desert thorns, and invited us to sit on a pair of worn mats in the sand.

While one of his sons prepared us mint tea in a tin pot, the women drifted up - three ancient withered ones, the indigo drained from their robes by age to a flat grey, the younger ones supple, bright-eyed, lashes long, noses aquiline, teeth perfect. Lastly came the young woman who had been breastfeeding, and I realised she was Mr Ibrahim's wife. He himself must have been at least 50.

As the last rays of the sun slanted across the dunes and the moonlight was affirmed, the women silently arranged themselves in a semi-circle. I sipped my tea. The evening was sublimely serene, and the desert felt a wondrous place to be, clean and hospitable.

While Mr Ibrahim refilled our cups, his wife took out a single-stringed instrument and began playing it with a tiny bow, and the Tuareg women clapped in time - but bored, very bored. Subdued, almost embarrassed chanting followed, killing time rather than keeping it. Soon the chanting wavered and started to die away, voice by voice. After all, the rice was on the cooking coals back at their tents, they had children to feed and men to deal with, and they wondered how much longer it would be until they were released from this nightly tourist chore.

Even here, in the sands outside Timbuktu, one felt the dead hand of tourism, of culture as fleeting display, heritage as floorshow. I looked across at Kathryn and we nodded. We said merci to Mr Ibrahim, and the women were released.

As we strolled back through the dunes, I wondered how long the Tuareg would be able to go on like this, living in camps on the edge of town, scraping together what they could. I could not work out what was more disturbing - a people whose home is the wide Sahara considering they are "poor" in comparison to the junk-fed worker bees of the industrial world, or the warrior founders of Timbuktu reduced to beggary at its verge.

This is an edited extract from `The Blue Man: Travel, Love & Coffee', by Larry Buttrose, published today by Lonely Planet (pounds 6.99).

The easiest way to reach Mali's capital, Bamako, is via Paris on Air Afrique or Air France. Through discount agents such as the Africa Travel Centre (0171-387 1211) or Bridge the World (0171-911 0900), you can expect to pay around pounds 600 return. Air Mali operates a respectable domestic network of flights within the country, including to Timbuktu

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