Blogging the road 2 Timbuktu
Sometimes we all long to immerse ourselves in the bustle and surprise of somewhere other, somewhere truly exotic and unique. With Morocco, we in Europe have the orient just a couple of hours flight away.
Morocco has long been the trading post between Europe and Africa. The great Saharan caravans brought gold across the desert from the south and traded with produce from the silk route, Europe and Morocco itself.
The two great citadels of trade were Marrakech and Fes.
The Berbers are a proud race with one of the longest histories on earth. They called North Africa their home long before the arrival of the Arabs. Their culture is believed to date back more than 4,000 years and ancient Berber states called Mauritania and Numidia existed in classical times.
Between the 11th and 13th centuries, two great Berber dynasties – the Almoravids and the Almohads – much of north-west Africa and parts of Spain. Today, there are substantial Berber populations in Morocco and Algeria, plus smaller numbers in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt.
Below is a response I gave to Ethical Travel Magazine's questions about security for my forth coming trip to Festival in The Desert and The Carvan Of Peace.
1) Safety, specifically my precautions.
Safety, when it comes to traveling the road less travelled, lies PRIMARILY with local knowledge and experience.
Take health. If you are seriously injured when travelling your best chance of survival lies in finding a local solution quickly. You need the people looking after you knowing how to care for you, find a local doctor and if possible organise your transport. Only in the most extreme of circumstances would your first port of call be the insurance company. Of course you need the insurance in extremis, and no one should travel without full personal travel insurance, but when you travel, wherever you are going beit to the USA, the UK or Cameroon, but especially when you are off the beaten track, your first line of defence is local. Only if all local options are impossible or too risky would you consider the medical evacuation option.
International involvement in Mali could be avoided by supporting the MNLA and the regional military.
Things are speeding up so fast in Mali it is hard to keep up. Recent events have perhaps now made an article I was working on meaningless. I publish it below to indicate how serious the consequences may be in the region.
On the 16th of November the MNLA clashed with AQMI/MUJAO at Ansongo and Fata towards Menaka, a remaining MNLA stronghold. First reports from Gao were of many AQIM/MUJAO dead and wounded coming back into town. I had heard that the MNLA had stood their ground, but now I hear they have been badly hit too, and that Menaka has fallen to AQIM/MUJAO.
Reports too of Mali military fighting AQMI near Lere west of Timbuktu.
Timbuktu is an evocative name. For over a millenium it has conjured travel, mystery and adventure, salt, gold and knowledge. It is a town located where the Niger River flows northward into the desert. Timbuktu was founded by the Tuareg Imashagan in the 11th century and thanks to its unique geographical position, it became a natural meeting point for Tuareg, Songhai, Wangara, Fulani and Arabs. From the 11th century onwards, Timbuktu became an important port where goods from West Africa and North Africa were traded. Timbuktu is also the crossroads “where the camel meets the canoe," a place of traders and middle-men. Timbuktuians say of their history: gold came from the south, salt from the north, and Divine Knowledge, from within.
Security measures in Mali crisis get tough: Bamako bans (some) tinted windows and makes motorcycle helmets compulsory
I have a little fetish that my time in Bamako is satisfying nicely. I love security measures, in all their shapes and sizes, the world over. As a constant traveller, I come across them all the time.
Just the phrase ‘Gap Year’ is bursting with untold potential. The possibilities for far-flung travel, emotional highs and great personal growth are literally endless and for those with a genuine sense of adventure and a deep longing to engage with the spirit of Africa, From Here 2 Timbuktu can offer an unparalleled experience.
We have a couple of sought-after positions each year open to Gap Year students of under 25 years of age. Young people who wish to join us need to:
Guy Lankester, founder of From Here 2 Timbuktu, originally deepened his passion for the African continent through extensive travel, during which time he took many photographs. This love of Africa culminated in the establishment of his exciting travel company as well as winning an award in the 2011 Photographer of the Year competition.
The original, highly memorable winning photo features a seated woman in front of a sewing machine, gazing out of a window. The category Guy entered it into was First Shot: Work, Rest and Play, which it reflects with great ambiguity. Guy says:
We have always asserted that lack of imagination is the only real restriction in travel. Happily our clients seem to have huge imaginations, which probably is what bring them to us in the first place, the young and not-so-young alike. In fact, a significant number of our clients are in the 60 plus age bracket, longing for authentic, adventurous travel that goes beyond a cruise or packaged city break.
One valued client is Frieda, who travelled with us on a trip to Timbuktu at the admirable age of 90. She has led an incredible life since she was born in 1921, fleeing Nazi Germany to become a nurse, then a doctor. She wrote to us after the trip to Timbuktu, which she went on alone. She described it as a place that had always been synonymous with magic for her and her partner. Her delight in finally visiting was clear.
When travelling around Africa, one of the main pleasures is the contact with the locals. There are thousands of languages spoken all over the continent, but each one has a word for “hello”. We look at the ‘African Greetings’ guide by Anouk Zijlma, country by country.
Including the English and French, which many countries also use, here is how to say "hello" in:
Bom dia - Good morning
Boa tarde - Good afternoon
Boa noite - Good evening
One of my clients asked me this year: "How come your trips are so full of women?" (Women make up 65-70% of my clients).
"Because they're more adventurous than men" I replied.
This caused the men's feathers to flutter. Rubbish rubbish rubbish ... women were more likely to book on a guided trip because of security - they were using me as their great protector! (mocking tones all round) - men are all travelling on their own.
This article was written in 2009. I will update it soon.
Rather than lifting Africa out of the realm of myth and placing it on a more real, transparent and honest footing with the rest of the world, international politics and specifically the “war on terror” have encouraged a new mythology around security in “the dark continent”.
I have just come back from a wonderful Womad music festival where I have my From Here 2 Timbuktu pitch. One question came up again and again from people interested in a trip with me to West Africa: security in the light of government warnings.
Having been going to West Africa every year for the past seven years, and feeling more at home, safer and happier there than I do anywhere else in the world, I sometimes feel like a lone voice on the beach pushing against the tsunami of western government rubbish coming towards me.
The other revelation I had at Womad was the benefit of the great African tradition of child labour. My friends' kids took over the selling of my African wares. They doubled my takings from the previous year, people signed up to my raffle which was funding sending Kum in Cameroon to college next year, and they charmed the Womad public into taking more notice of my trips, which is the main point of the pitch. But the greatest joy we all got from my experiment with child labour was seeing the fun, the learning, the charm, the polite social interaction and the responsibility displayed by the kids.
I won a prize! I entered the Travel Photographer Of The Year Award, or rather I bombarded them and one of my photos got through to a category final for First Shot - Work Rest And Play and ... Happy New Year!
Talk something up enough and it will surely happen.
This season has been dominated by the kidnapping of 3 tourists in Timbuktu in late November 2011. Finally, after three years of western government warnings of a “high risk of terrorism” in Mali, the first ever kidnappings, and thus the first ever “terrorist” attack on Mali soil has happened.
Here are the From Here 2 Timbuktu 10 Top Tips For Travel Through West Africa.
1) Passport (with 6 months validity), Visa, Yellow Fever Certificate, Money - € euro cash, back up visa (no mastercard) credit card, don’t even think of travelers cheques - flight ticket (or paid for passage on my Sahara Overland, Uk to Timbuktu trip!
In response to an article in the Washington Post.
How ironic that the Tuareg rebellion has caused the apparent postponement of a military exercise to train the Malian military in counter terrorsim.