Off to Timbuktu – one of the highlights of a tour of Mali and Burkina Faso

By Joseph B. Lambert
This article appears on page 6 of the March 2021 issue.
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For more than a hundred years, Timbuktu (Tombouctou) has been used as a metaphor for the most isolated place in the world. Unlike the fictional Shangri-la (invented by James Hilton in his novel “Lost Horizon”), however, Timbuktu is a very real place.

A bit of history

Its reputation for faraway isolation developed during the 19th century, but it did have a golden age, based on trade and scholarship, from the 12th to the 16th centuries. The University of Timbuktu was a thriving center of learning, and the city amassed hundreds of thousands of historically priceless Islamic manuscripts, many with very elegant calligraphy.

The city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, and it was a reasonable destination for hardy tourists throughout the late 20th century, but catastrophe struck in 2012 when Islamic extremists took over the city and much of northern Mali, destroying many shrines and attempting to annihilate the fabled manuscripts. (The riveting story of the extraordinary efforts local families made to preserve their historical culture was described by Joshua Hammer in his 2017 book “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts.”)

In addition to the treasury of manuscripts, some of which had been digitized for preservation prior to 2012, many of the working architectural gems of the city still flourish — worth a trip in themselves.

Ihab Zaki, owner of Spiekermann Travel Service (Eastpoint, MI; 800/645-3233, mideasttrvl.com), a company we’d used before, and Mohamed Halouani, who plans and guides tours in West and North Africa, decided to develop a new tour to Mali. Mr. Halouani had been the guide on Spiekermann’s 2019 tour to Algeria, which my wife, Mary, and I took, and he told us about the proposed Mali tour, so we got on the list early. It was scheduled for January-February 2020, and it quickly filled.

To round out the itinerary, a short visit to the neighboring country of Burkina Faso was included, although tour members could opt out of that visit.

Pre-trip stopover

Our itinerary called for arrival in Bamako, the capital of Mali, with return from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The only European airline servicing both cities was Air France, which is not a member of the oneworld Alliance that we usually use for our flights, so we decided to fly on an alliance-member airline to Paris and enjoy a few days there before continuing on.

We booked local tours through Viator.com and a room at Hotel Cecilia, just off the Place de l’Étoile, through Tripadvisor.com.

In 2001, we had enjoyed more than a week in Paris, but we still had many places we wanted to visit. Our Viator excursions were to Chartres and to Fontainebleau, both easily accessible with our guides by rail. We also spent a day on our own visiting sites within the city. The Musée Marmottan Monet, housing the largest collection of Monet’s art in existence, was the highlight.

On to Mali

Preparing for our flight from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Bamako, we checked in with Air France and learned that the airline has a 12-kilogram (or 26-pound) limit for carry-on bags, so we ended up having to check ours. Most of our tour mates, as well as Ihab Zaki, were scheduled on the same flight, so we all got acquainted before boarding.

We arrived in Bamako at the comfortable hour of 4 p.m. and were escorted to the very fine Azalai Grand Hotel.

Our first touring day was supposed to include a visit to the World Heritage Site of the Bandiagara Escarpment, a 500-meter-tall cliff that runs for about 90 miles in central Mali and serves as the primary home of the Dogon people. However, serious fighting had erupted between the Dogon and the Fulani people, making such a visit impossible.

Spiekermann substituted a day trip south of Bamako to a Dogon settlement, where we were served an excellent lunch and enjoyed a traditional dance performance. On the way, we made a stop at the Arch of Kamadjan, which rivaled many of the formations in Arches National Park in Utah.

Traveling to Timbuktu

After a tour of Bamako’s sites the next day, we all shifted our focus to our much-anticipated tour of Timbuktu.

There was no practical land route to northern Mali, which still had active terrorist activity, so Ihab had chartered a 19-passenger Beech 1900D propeller aircraft from Air Sahel, with two South African pilots, which precisely accommodated our group of 16 travelers and three guides (the third was the local guide, Mamedi). Our luggage was transferred to our destination for that night by truck, and we took only daypacks.

We landed in Timbuktu in what seemed a normal airport, until we got a good look. The airport was surrounded by several circuits of razor wire, 6 to 8 feet high. Bunkers manned by armed UN soldiers in bulletproof vests were located strategically around the area, and tank-like Humvees sporting big guns patrolled everywhere. We were not sure whether to feel safe or threatened.

We were met by six 4-wheel-drive vehicles plus guard vehicles at the front and back, all protected by a private contingent of about 20 armed men hired by Ihab. At each stop in town, the men fanned out in all directions, stopping even bicycle traffic to create a large safe zone. Even inside buildings, they surrounded us. They spoke mainly Bambara and French, but we became very comfortable and friendly with them.

Seeing the sites

After our arrival, we drove directly to the famous Djinguereber Mosque, the central focus of the World Heritage Site and generally unaffected by the 2012 terrorist occupation.

The banco (mud brick) walls and roof are renewed with a coat of mud annually, and the protruding logs serve as scaffolding for the workers to apply it.

Unlike at other mosques in Mali, we were permitted by the imam to enter and tour the facility, and we took full advantage of the opportunity to roam the dark interior.

The Sankoré Mosque is probably the most famous visual landmark in Timbuktu, with its unusual pyramidal minaret. We were not allowed to enter this mosque, but we did visit the repositories of Timbuktu’s true treasures, its manuscripts. The Ahmet Baba Institute displays many of their 20,000 manuscripts.

After an amazing 2½ hours in Timbuktu, we returned to the airport, where security for outbound passengers was even more rigorous than it had been at our arrival. Each of our cars was examined minutely, with metal detectors swiped underneath and dogs sniffing for explosives. Each car was emptied of its occupants as the process played out.

Our indomitable pilots flew us safely north to Mopti, where we decompressed at Hotel Flandre in the nearby town of Sévaré.

We spent a day in and around Mopti, visiting a neighborhood of the Fulani people to see their mud buildings and listen to their music. Mopti is strategically located at the confluence of the Bani and Niger rivers, and our day included a pirogue (long canoe) cruise.

As our journey continued, we traveled to the town of Ségou, on the Niger River, where a festival to celebrate contemporary African music and art is held each year. The lovely Hotel vue de l’Esplanade was conveniently located directly adjacent to the festival grounds, and our room’s location, facing the festival, allowed us to enjoy the music far into the night (even long after we had lost interest).

Burkina Faso

As our visit to the adjacent country of Burkina Faso approached, four of our group members left the tour for other destinations.

We crossed the border at Heremakono, a crossing that likely would have gone smoothly and quickly if two of our members hadn’t taken photographs. (We had been told photographs were not permitted in sensitive areas like border crossings.) The perpetrators were removed from the bus, questioned and returned after about half an hour with photographs erased but cameras intact.

Our arrival at the 4-star Hotel Sissiman in Bobo Dioulasso made everyone feel better, with the first working Wi-Fi we’d encountered in several days. Nearby, the Domes of Fabedougou, an amazing set of sandstone formations (domes, pinnacles), were just the right size for clambering.

The most impressive ancient monument in Burkina Faso is Loropéni, ruins that date back a thousand years. The region was a major gold-mining center for many centuries, and Loropéni, in the region of the Lobi people, is one of many fortified settlements in West Africa that stimulated and controlled the trans-Saharan and Atlantic gold trade. With tall, stone walls made of iron-rich laterite — with its characteristic rusty red color — Loropéni is the best-preserved example of these settlements.

Our last stop on the tour was the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou (pronounced according to French rules: “oo-ah’-gah-doo’-goo”). The 4-star Bravia Hotel was the best accommodation of the trip. And not far from town, in the southwest corner of the country, was one of the tour’s highlights, the painted houses of Tiébélé.

Located very close to the border with Ghana, Tiébélé is the capital of the Kassena people, and their windowless mud-brick homes are entirely painted with mostly black-and-white patterns of geometric shapes, plants or animals, each with its own symbolism.

Entrances are low and narrow for defense. We were able to visit one house and had to crawl through such passageways to enter other rooms.

From Ouagadougou, we flew home, again via Paris.

A few details

The planning and execution of this novel tour by Spiekermann Travel Service was flawless. The total cost ($17,307 for the two of us) did not include airfare, by our request. Visas for the two of us cost a total of $992.

The excursion to Timbuktu in particular was perfect. Being able to visit this exotic and interesting town, despite the unrest, was a singularly satisfying experience.

 

Please login or subscribe to ITN to read the entire post.

For more than a hundred years, Timbuktu (Tombouctou) has been used as a metaphor for the most isolated place in the world. Unlike the fictional Shangri-la (invented by James Hilton in his novel “Lost Horizon”), however, Timbuktu is a very real place.

A bit of history

Its reputation for faraway isolation developed during the 19th century, but it did have a golden age, based on trade and scholarship, from the 12th to the 16th centuries. The University of Timbuktu was a thriving center of learning, and the city amassed hundreds of thousands of historically priceless Islamic manuscripts, many with very elegant calligraphy.

The city became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, and it was a reasonable destination for hardy tourists throughout the late 20th century, but catastrophe struck in 2012 when Islamic extremists took over the city and much of northern Mali, destroying many shrines and attempting to annihilate the fabled manuscripts. (The riveting story of the extraordinary efforts local families made to preserve their historical culture was described by Joshua Hammer in his 2017 book “The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts.”)

In addition to the treasury of manuscripts, some of which had been digitized for preservation prior to 2012, many of the working architectural gems of the city still flourish — worth a trip in themselves.

Ihab Zaki, owner of Spiekermann Travel Service (Eastpoint, MI; 800/645-3233, mideasttrvl.com), a company we’d used before, and Mohamed Halouani, who plans and guides tours in West and North Africa, decided to develop a new tour to Mali. Mr. Halouani had been the guide on Spiekermann’s 2019 tour to Algeria, which my wife, Mary, and I took, and he told us about the proposed Mali tour, so we got on the list early. It was scheduled for January-February 2020, and it quickly filled.

To round out the itinerary, a short visit to the neighboring country of Burkina Faso was included, although tour members could opt out of that visit.

Pre-trip stopover

Our itinerary called for arrival in Bamako, the capital of Mali, with return from Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. The only European airline servicing both cities was Air France, which is not a member of the oneworld Alliance that we usually use for our flights, so we decided to fly on an alliance-member airline to Paris and enjoy a few days there before continuing on.

We booked local tours through Viator.com and a room at Hotel Cecilia, just off the Place de l’Étoile, through Tripadvisor.com.

In 2001, we had enjoyed more than a week in Paris, but we still had many places we wanted to visit. Our Viator excursions were to Chartres and to Fontainebleau, both easily accessible with our guides by rail. We also spent a day on our own visiting sites within the city. The Musée Marmottan Monet, housing the largest collection of Monet’s art in existence, was the highlight.

On to Mali

Preparing for our flight from Charles de Gaulle Airport to Bamako, we checked in with Air France and learned that the airline has a 12-kilogram (or 26-pound) limit for carry-on bags, so we ended up having to check ours. Most of our tour mates, as well as Ihab Zaki, were scheduled on the same flight, so we all got acquainted before boarding.

We arrived in Bamako at the comfortable hour of 4 p.m. and were escorted to the very fine Azalai Grand Hotel.

Our first touring day was supposed to include a visit to the World Heritage Site of the Bandiagara Escarpment, a 500-meter-tall cliff that runs for about 90 miles in central Mali and serves as the primary home of the Dogon people. However, serious fighting had erupted between the Dogon and the Fulani people, making such a visit impossible.

Spiekermann substituted a day trip south of Bamako to a Dogon settlement, where we were served an excellent lunch and enjoyed a traditional dance performance. On the way, we made a stop at the Arch of Kamadjan, which rivaled many of the formations in Arches National Park in Utah.

Traveling to Timbuktu

After a tour of Bamako’s sites the next day, we all shifted our focus to our much-anticipated tour of Timbuktu.

There was no practical land route to northern Mali, which still had active terrorist activity, so Ihab had chartered a 19-passenger Beech 1900D propeller aircraft from Air Sahel, with two South African pilots, which precisely accommodated our group of 16 travelers and three guides (the third was the local guide, Mamedi). Our luggage was transferred to our destination for that night by truck, and we took only daypacks.

We landed in Timbuktu in what seemed a normal airport, until we got a good look. The airport was surrounded by several circuits of razor wire, 6 to 8 feet high. Bunkers manned by armed UN soldiers in bulletproof vests were located strategically around the area, and tank-like Humvees sporting big guns patrolled everywhere. We were not sure whether to feel safe or threatened.

We were met by six 4-wheel-drive vehicles plus guard vehicles at the front and back, all protected by a private contingent of about 20 armed men hired by Ihab. At each stop in town, the men fanned out in all directions, stopping even bicycle traffic to create a large safe zone. Even inside buildings, they surrounded us. They spoke mainly Bambara and French, but we became very comfortable and friendly with them.

Seeing the sites

After our arrival, we drove directly to the famous Djinguereber Mosque, the central focus of the World Heritage Site and generally unaffected by the 2012 terrorist occupation.

The banco (mud brick) walls and roof are renewed with a coat of mud annually, and the protruding logs serve as scaffolding for the workers to apply it.

Unlike at other mosques in Mali, we were permitted by the imam to enter and tour the facility, and we took full advantage of the opportunity to roam the dark interior.

The Sankoré Mosque is probably the most famous visual landmark in Timbuktu, with its unusual pyramidal minaret. We were not allowed to enter this mosque, but we did visit the repositories of Timbuktu’s true treasures, its manuscripts. The Ahmet Baba Institute displays many of their 20,000 manuscripts.

After an amazing 2½ hours in Timbuktu, we returned to the airport, where security for outbound passengers was even more rigorous than it had been at our arrival. Each of our cars was examined minutely, with metal detectors swiped underneath and dogs sniffing for explosives. Each car was emptied of its occupants as the process played out.

Our indomitable pilots flew us safely north to Mopti, where we decompressed at Hotel Flandre in the nearby town of Sévaré.

We spent a day in and around Mopti, visiting a neighborhood of the Fulani people to see their mud buildings and listen to their music. Mopti is strategically located at the confluence of the Bani and Niger rivers, and our day included a pirogue (long canoe) cruise.

As our journey continued, we traveled to the town of Ségou, on the Niger River, where a festival to celebrate contemporary African music and art is held each year. The lovely Hotel vue de l’Esplanade was conveniently located directly adjacent to the festival grounds, and our room’s location, facing the festival, allowed us to enjoy the music far into the night (even long after we had lost interest).

Burkina Faso

As our visit to the adjacent country of Burkina Faso approached, four of our group members left the tour for other destinations.

We crossed the border at Heremakono, a crossing that likely would have gone smoothly and quickly if two of our members hadn’t taken photographs. (We had been told photographs were not permitted in sensitive areas like border crossings.) The perpetrators were removed from the bus, questioned and returned after about half an hour with photographs erased but cameras intact.

Our arrival at the 4-star Hotel Sissiman in Bobo Dioulasso made everyone feel better, with the first working Wi-Fi we’d encountered in several days. Nearby, the Domes of Fabedougou, an amazing set of sandstone formations (domes, pinnacles), were just the right size for clambering.

The most impressive ancient monument in Burkina Faso is Loropéni, ruins that date back a thousand years. The region was a major gold-mining center for many centuries, and Loropéni, in the region of the Lobi people, is one of many fortified settlements in West Africa that stimulated and controlled the trans-Saharan and Atlantic gold trade. With tall, stone walls made of iron-rich laterite — with its characteristic rusty red color — Loropéni is the best-preserved example of these settlements.

Our last stop on the tour was the capital of Burkina Faso, Ouagadougou (pronounced according to French rules: “oo-ah’-gah-doo’-goo”). The 4-star Bravia Hotel was the best accommodation of the trip. And not far from town, in the southwest corner of the country, was one of the tour’s highlights, the painted houses of Tiébélé.

Located very close to the border with Ghana, Tiébélé is the capital of the Kassena people, and their windowless mud-brick homes are entirely painted with mostly black-and-white patterns of geometric shapes, plants or animals, each with its own symbolism.

Entrances are low and narrow for defense. We were able to visit one house and had to crawl through such passageways to enter other rooms.

From Ouagadougou, we flew home, again via Paris.

A few details

The planning and execution of this novel tour by Spiekermann Travel Service was flawless. The total cost ($17,307 for the two of us) did not include airfare, by our request. Visas for the two of us cost a total of $992.

The excursion to Timbuktu in particular was perfect. Being able to visit this exotic and interesting town, despite the unrest, was a singularly satisfying experience.