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10 January 2000

Great myth, shame about the reality

Lindsey Hilsum found that Timbuktu at the millennium wasn't quite what she'd hoped

By Lindsey Hilsum

“Why Timbuktu? Because what else would have that much cache when we’re sitting around at dinner parties discussing where we all were for the millennium!” explained Michael, a Brit sitting on the mud roof of the ancient market at Djenne, with days of travel still ahead of him on the way to the fabled city.

We had come to seek out a myth, to visit the ends of the Earth, to uncover the mystery of this ancient crossroads in the desert. But some myths, like dogs sleeping in the dust, are probably best left to lie.

It takes a lot of effort to get to Timbuktu. Among Africa’s great European explorers, Mungo Park was not alone in trying and failing to reach the collection of mud dwellings whose name haunted the minds of governesses and adventurers alike.

But we had retained the services of Monsieur Ballo. A rotund and sometimes irascible fellow who survived on a diet of boiled sweets and kola nuts, it was his job to drive us from Mali’s capital, Bamako, to our destination. Never one for the easy option, had he been presented with Robert Frost’s two roads, he wouldn’t have worried which was the less travelled, but blundered on regardless straight down the middle, sweeping saplings, stray goats and grazing camels before him. What he lacked in driving skill, he unfortunately didn’t make up for in local knowledge, but in speed. It was as much a surprise to him as it was to us to learn – two days into our journey – that one could not, in fact, drive to Timbuktu via the route he’d chosen. The Niger river, we discovered, inundates the surrounding countryside at this time of year, flooding the landing stage used by the car ferry. So we slid to a halt at the water’s edge and completed our journey by motorised canoe.

We could have taken the plane, but had been assured it was full (on arriving in Timbuktu we found that day’s flight had in fact been empty).

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The guide books warn “you will be disappointed”. Timbuktu is a dusty, ramshackle town whose only official historical sites are two mud mosques. The myth generated by writers and explorers in the late 1800s is Timbuktu’s greatest draw. No images seem to exist of its glory days in the 16th century, but scant accounts drifted across the sands to build a legendary city. There’s nothing physically there that would entice package tourists to endure the privations the trip engenders. But take the mystery, add the millennium and you have the reason a town that can accommodate 150 played host to nearly 700 tourists and several journalists and film crews that weekend.

Others just needed to tick it off the list. Touring, as W H Auden predicted, a world “. . . where every sacred location/Is a sand-buried site all cultured Texans do/Misinformed and thoroughly fleeced by their guides”, a planeload of baffled Yanks dropped in for three hours. After a lunchtime lecture on Timbuktu’s antiquities, one importuned the town’s most eminent scholar to find him a small leather camel (common only in Morrocan bazaars). A party of Italians booked the Azelais, the town’s tatty but nonethe- less best hotel, for their own private party.

To add to the jollity, Mali’s contingent of American Peace Corps volunteers descended en masse, taking over one of the only two bars that parade as nightspots and renaming it “The Millennium” for the night. A patrol of the town’s other hotels showed them, despite full occupancy, to be deserted – our driver explained why at about 20 minutes before midnight: the party was happening about two miles from town.

We drove erratically through the darkness towards two neon tubes glowing far away. We parked, then struggled over a dune to find, laid out before us, a crescent of Tamacheq tents full of reclining holiday-makers being entertained by the local garage band. The music wailed from a battery-powered PA in oriental cadences coaxed from a Fender Stratocaster, accompanied by Timbuktu’s version of the Supremes, three fat ladies in saris.

As we witnessed the final seconds of the century drain away on someone’s digital watch, I think everyone questioned why they were really there; it had been such a great idea, shame about reality.

The locals, being Muslim, hardly noticed the start of the 21st century. When asked what year it was in their calendar, no one seemed to know. Still, the folly of foreigners is good for a buck: the price of a beer tripled for the weekend, and catching a camel home on New Year’s Eve cost more than a day’s car hire.

Taking photos was almost impossible as anyone who thought they might be in the frame demanded more money than a Hollywood extra. As we were making a film, life became a series of arguments and negotiations.

Safe – or perhaps not – in Ballo’s hands, we roared back through the desert of northern Mali towards the tarmac road and the promise of a warm shower. The myth of the lost city in the desert persists in the mind’s eye, quite separate from the reality recorded in a different memory bank. The new millennium may have started for the rest of the world, but in Timbuktu it’s just another day.

Lindsey Hilsum and Tim Lambon’s film about the Internet in Timbuktu will be on “Channel 4 News” on Sunday 9 January