The Road to Timbuktu

The first half of my journey to Timbuktu.

I’m going to skip ahead for this blog post, because I want to write about Timbuktu while it’s all still fresh in my memory. One post for the trip up, one post for the week there and trip back. Then I’ll back-pedal a bit to talk about the Red Beret riots in Bamako, but that’s old enough now that it’s no rush, but I still want to talk about it.

You can view my edit of the Photo story here, when the UNHCR runs it I’ll link to that.

Boldly going where nobody else is dumb enough to go.

N ot long after I started working in Bamako I was approached by someone from the United Nations High Council for Refugees (UNHCR) in Bamako about potential work in northern Mali, particularly Timbuktu and Gao. While UNHCR had been able to get staff up as far as Mopti, they were extremely hesitant to send anyone further north. But as a freelancer I can travel of my own free will, and if I were to find myself traveling north, they might be interested in photos.

At the time there were basically two ways north: fork out a lot of money for a car, which might be turned around by the Malian army, or shell out $2000-3000 for a seat on a one-way charter flight. Since I couldn’t afford either, I focused on work in Bamako and kept an ear to the ground for transport north.

Eventually I met Ali, a friend of a friend, who knew about a bus heading up to Timbuktu. It was the first bus north I had heard of, so I jumped on the opportunity and bought a ticket. I let UNHCR know I would be going, and they told me if I could find a returning Internally Displaced Person (IDP), they’d be interested in a photo story. As it turns out, Ali’s sister Fatima, was just that. She had fled Timbuktu 8 months prior with her 4 kids, and they would be on the bus, returning home. We met that afternoon and talked about what I wanted to do, and they agreed to let me photograph the trip.  UNHCR was on board, and I was good to go.

Days 1-2

F atima and her 4 kids: Mohammed, 12; Djenne, 8; Tanti, 5; and Baba, 9 months, had been living with her brother since they fled Timbuktu in July 2012. The city had become too dangerous, both because of the oppressive rule of Ansar Dine, and the threat of a counter-offensive from the south. So, like most Songhai people, they came to Bamako, joining what would eventually become over 45,000 IDPs in the city. They father and husband, Omar, stayed behind to look after their house.

For the past 8 months they had been living at their older brother’s house, in Bamako.


Fatima (orange shirt), Nialy has henna applied to her hands and feet, while he daughters Tanti (green shirt) and Djenne (red), do their hair in preparation for the journey home.

When I arrived, Fatima and her daughters were having their hair done and elaborate henna design were being applied to their hands and feet. This is a Malian tradition, and I couldn’t help but be impressed by the fact that even under such serious circumstances, the women still insisted on looking their best while traveling. The boys spent the evening kicking soccer balls around, while Fatima stayed up so late she fell asleep in the hairdresser’s lap before she was finished.



Mohammed helps his youngest sister Tanti put on her backpack before heading to the bus station.

The next morning was mostly spent doing laundry and packing bags. Nobody was really in a rush, we weren’t due at the bus station until around 1:00 p.m. But still, the air around the house was heavy, with little conversation.  We left for the station in the heat of the day — finding a taxi willing to take six people took some time, but one took pity on us eventually.

We had tickets on the GDF bus — one of only two companies that run buses up to Timbuktu. Nearly everyone at the station was Songhai, and everybody knew everybody. Some were returning IDPs, some were traders, some were men going back to check up on shops and homes before returning to Bamako. Everyone seemed tired before the trip even started.

We were there for about an hour before being told we’d been sold off to Sangue Voyage. ‘Selling off’ is a common tactic for Malian transport companies: when they can’t sell enough tickets to make a profitable trip, they’ll sell their unwitting  passengers off to another company with a half-full bus. It’s always a hassle, but finding out you’ve been sold off to Sangue Voyage is just about the worst news you can get. I could write a whole post about how much I dislike Sangue Voyage, and being sold off to them was like getting punched in the face.

When we showed up, the bus was in pieces, undergoing serious repairs. Their bus station was little more than a few benches next to an open sewer, and we had to sit there for ten hours before things got underway. By the time we actually got out of Bamako, it was nearly midnight. Everyone was filthy from sitting on the side of the road, and I was frustrated because it made getting images of Fatima and the kids boarding the bus nearly impossible. But still, at least, we were on our way.


It’s almost 11:00pm when the bus finally lets us take our seats. With 4 kids, it’s tough finding space, and Fatima ends up sharing two spaces with her whole family.

Days 3-4

I  was woken up by a bright light and the sound of angry Bambara.  A Gendarme was ordering me off the bus, telling me I needed to talk to his boss. We had reached the Segou checkpoint at sunrise, and the gendarmes wanted to know what a Toubab was doing on a bus bound for Timbuktu. I explained the point of my trip in my best Bambara, and a few bean jokes later I was back on the bus.

We spent the next 3 hours in Segou waiting on repairs. This would become commonplace, with every stop being dragged on by hours of repairs. As it turned out, the bus crew was performing some fairly spectacular backwoods modifications and using chunks of wood to improve the buses suspension.  Suffice to say, it wasn’t working. The stress caused the wood to burn up every few hours, which was the cause for the regular repairs.

From Segou we turned north, towards Diabaly. We would be taking the back route to Timbuktu, through Niono, Diabaly, Lere, and Niafunke.

We got as far as Niono  without incident, where we had another 3 hour pit stop.  That afternoon, with new chunks of wood in place (and despite the cows wandering around the bus), we pressed on, now a solid 24 hours behind schedule.


Niono (1 of 1)

Just another day in Mali.

The road ends at Niono, transforming into wide dirt track flanked on all sides by the endless rice-paddies of the Office du Niger. Eventually we arrived at Diabaly, a town briefly occupied by rebels during the January offensive, and the site of some serious fighting. Unsurprisingly, the checkpoints at Diabaly were heavy, with scored of Malian soldiers resting in the shade of the scorched remains of tanks and trucks. At the first checkpoint I was taken off the bus and introduced to the the commander of the outpost there. He tried to get a bribe out of me, stating that my papers were expired, but his cunning plan fell through when I pointed out that my papers were not, in fact, expired. Grumbling, but defeated, he let me through.  By now the sun was getting low in the sky, and the bus made a mad dash into the bush.

The landscape began to change significantly after Diabaly, rice paddies giving way to a barren landscape populated almost entirely by spiny Acacia trees, with a layer of dry dead grass covering barren dirt underneath. There were a few roaming camels, and the occasional  Tuareg camp dotted the landscape, blue robes standing out among straw huts. We arrived in the small town of Nampala as the sun slipped below the horizon and made camp for the night. With most of their food consumed the day before, everyone snacked on biscuits and crackers for dinner. The wealthy ones had the luxury of canned sardines. As the moon rose and temperatures dropped everyone huddled together on mats and slept where they could find space. I took tea with the bus crew, who were surprisingly good spirited in the face of their never-ending work, before stretching across some seats inside the bus and passing out.



The first night was spent in Nampala, on the Mauritanian border.

t he bus roared to life early in the morning, well before sunrise.  Horns blaring, everyone scrambled on-board, bleary-eyed and half awake, and we were off.  As we plunged into the darkness the skeletal branches of Acacia flashed in the headlights before scraping along the side of the bus. The sound rivaled nails on a chalkboard, making any kind of sleep impossible. But it didn’t matter: We were on the road for about an hour before the bus broke down again.



All day, every day.

Another 2 hours of repairs, and we were headed towards Lere, where we took a break and ate breakfast. It was here I had my first experience with Taguella, the delicious bread of the north. It’s half-pita, half-naan, and having a few fresh loaves is a great way to start a day.

Getting out of Lere saw us face yet another checkpoint, yet another hour wait. The landscape after Lere changed again as we entered the Niger-river delta. Hard pack dirt became deep sand, but still we trudged on, weaving around bushes and over small dams. We arrived in Niafunke, famous home-town of Ali Farka Toure, late in the afternoon. A brief stop for lunch, and we were back on the road. We weren’t sure if we’d be making it to Timbuktu by the end of the day, but everyone was hoping.

Alas, it was not to be. We passed through the towns of Tonka and Dire, offloading a few passengers and luggage before ending the day in Goundam, a mere 85 kilometers (50 miles) from Timbuktu. Still, the bus driver insisted driving at night wasn’t safe. We made camp quickly, most everyone skipping dinner. A young Timbuktu native, Asko, took pity on me and made space for me on his mattress. He spoke English well, and we stayed up late drinking tea and talking about Timbuktu.

Again, the bus started early in the morning, well before sunrise. Thankfully the last stretch was easy, and time passed quickly. We arrived in Timbuktu around 6:30 in the morning, exhausted, but glad to be there. 24 hours may have turned into 3 days, but we made it.


Timbuktu (1 of 1)

We made it! Fatima waits at the bus stop in Timbuktu.



1 Comment

  1. GEoff

    Amazing how bean jokes get you out of sticky situations. Love Malian culture


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