Timbuktu – Cycling through the Sahara Desert

Timbuktu – Cycling through the Sahara Desert

A West African Journey

When I started in Tangier/Morocco in February 2000, the “BILD” daily newspaper wrote: “There are no donkeys in the Sahara ? Wrong ! At least one will struggle through the sweltering desert in a few days. A wheeled donkey, that is.”

But I’m not worried about the desert for the time being, because I’m facing a bigger challenge: for the first time I’m going on such a tour alone, without Stephan, with whom I’ve cycled through the world in the past years.

To get used to it in the first time, I prescribe myself an extensive cultural programme. On the one hand, this should distract me from being alone and, on the other, prevent me from starting to speed. But the mountains of Morocco prevent me from speeding and after a few days I have also gotten out of the habit of looking around for the imaginary Stephan.

In Morocco

Morocco is the ideal country for me to slowly approach Africa. You are already in North Africa, but Morocco is a mixture of Europe, Arabia and Africa. And this mixture facilitates the traveller’s cultural introduction to the black continent. The first few days took me to Fes, one of the famous royal cities. One of my most interesting experiences is the visit to the Medina of Fes. Passing through one of the large old town gates, I am immersed in the world of the Middle Ages. Inside, there is an unmanageable maze of alleys and shops, donkeys and traders.  All loads are still transported by horse or donkey. It smells of spices and at the same time of donkeys.

In the dim thatched alleys, I stroll through the various artisan quarters. Past the butchers’ guild and a lot of chopped-off goats’ heads, I enter the dyers’ quarter. Here, the fresh skins are dyed in huge vats set into the ground. The dyers stand up to their hips in the vats and pound the skins. The whole thing is overlaid with a sweet and sour smell that quickly makes an untrained person change location.

I continue my way through the carpenters’ quarter over to the pot makers, gold and coppersmiths. I am constantly being asked: “Do you want a hotel? Want wife? Want hash? I don’t want a hotel or a woman – I just want to get out of town.

Marrakech, 400 km from here, is my next destination. The road takes me through the fantastic landscape of the middle Atlas Mountains. But danger is always lurking here. They announce themselves by honking twice, which means that an overtruck is about to thunder past me at 100 km/h, four centimetres away.

Marrakech enchants with its huge and well-preserved city walls, which glow glowing red in the setting sun and stand out so fascinatingly against the snow-covered mountains of the High Atlas.

Marrakech is the second oldest city in Morocco and is called the “Pearl of the South”. At first, however, it seems to me to be a rather dirty pearl, because it is quite polluted with exhaust fumes from the many cars.

But that is quickly forgotten once you have seen the famous Koutoubia Mosque from 1137 with its 77-metre-high minaret and experienced an evening on Jemaa El Fna Square.

Translated, the square means “assembly of the dead”. In the past, the heads of executed people were placed here. Nowadays, as night falls, countless spectators flood the square and are enchanted by jugglers, musicians and acrobats.

My way leads me further into the High Atlas. After 140 km uphill, I reach the 2100 m high Tizi-n-Test pass. A fantastic view. In endless serpentines the road then plunges down to an altitude of 200 m to rise again to 2000m in the Anti-Atlas.

The landscape is breathtakingly beautiful, but the joy is limited because it is quite strenuous on a bike.


Dangerous road to Mauritania

A few days later, the mountains have disappeared and the desert reigns. I am in the Western Sahara. The road leads along the Atlantic coast, but is quite monotonous. The only change here is the police checks.

And then I arrive at the end of Morocco – Dakhla, the southernmost town.

From here, the only way to Mauritania is in a military convoy through the minefields. I am given a lift by Belgians in a car. A 400 km adventure through the desert begins. The convoy consists of 65 vehicles. We spend the first night in an inhospitable, lonely place in the middle of the restricted area. After that, the sand passages and tracks through the minefields begin. From now on, you should not deviate from the track. Many have already been killed by a mine explosion there. The only problem is that you can’t see the track from time to time. Tense and concentrated, we cross the critical area. It is a strange feeling, because you don’t know exactly where the mines are. Fortunately, the uncertainty ends with the first Mauritanian border post. From here on, a military jeep accompanies us and a short time later we arrive in Nouadibou, the first town in Mauritania.

The next (hopefully) tarmac road is 400 km away. To reach it, I took the world’s longest iron ore railway for 12 hours in an open wagon, from the Atlantic coast eastwards into the Sahara. Because of the dented rails, the wagon and I are constantly tossed back and forth. In the end, I am completely dusted and dented.

A surprisingly good road then brings me to Nouakchott, the country’s capital, despite days of sandstorms and temperatures of 48°C.

Here begins the 1,300 km long “Road of Hope” (Route d`Espoir), which leads directly into the Sahara. But this road is pretty hopeless, because suddenly 250 km of asphalt are missing. So the only way to continue is on bush tracks. A jeep driver would be thrilled, but with a bicycle the fun is limited, because the water supply and daily progress are difficult to calculate as a result.


Cutting hair in the sand

But after two weeks I enter Mali safe and sound. The colourful clothes of the people here are a real joy. Only their behaviour towards me is sometimes a bit strange. It happens that people drop everything when I appear in the village and run away screaming. On the other hand, women occasionally come with their children and want me to heal them.

In Bamako, the capital, I resupply before continuing on to Timbuktu. There are no or only contradictory information about the road to Timbuktu. The initially good asphalt roads deteriorate into dirt tracks and in the end I literally get stuck in the sand.

So I have to wait seven days in the small village called Léré in the middle of the desert, because there is an 80 km sand field ahead of me, which I can only cross safely by car. But for the next few days there is no car, because it is the Tabaski Fest. There is dancing for three days and each husband has to slaughter one sheep per wife. I spend the time helping Jonny, the village barber from Nigeria, to cope with the festival rush. The news of the white barber who cuts the hair of half the village spreads like wildfire.

A little later, we even have to hire a helper to get the work done. Due to our sudden prominence, we are invited to dinner by many families. The days in this village are among the most formative and impressive experiences of this trip. For one week I live integrated into the village community as a foreign traveller, human being and temporary hairdresser and learn so much about life in the Malian desert.


Lonely Timbuktu

Finally, a car takes me through the sand field and after another 300 km in the saddle I arrive in Timbuktu.

This small town is a lonely island in the middle of the sea of sand. Once a flourishing metropolis, today it is just dozing away and lives on the myth of bygone days.

The town’s splendid town houses are impressive and still bear witness to the time when, in the Middle Ages, the local university housed close to 20,000 students and eye operations were already done here.

Here in Timbuktu, I spend the night free of charge with the director of the local Ministry of Social Affairs, who curiously lives in the “Rue de Chemnitz”. The reason: Chemnitz is Timbuktu’s twin city ! Even the Chemnitz official gazette is lying around in the town hall there.

With a jeep I want to continue towards Mali’s big asphalt road, but unfortunately the car’s engine says goodbye in the middle of the sandy nothingness, so I switch back to the bike.

Now I struggle towards the road through the inhospitably hot and sandy landscape. You have to say torture, because there are no roads or tracks, even paths are not always there.

Mostly I follow animal tracks and thus get from fountain to fountain. The omnipresent thorns puncture my tyres. Sometimes I only make 30 km a day. Mostly I push, because the bike gets stuck in the kilometer-long sand dunes. After two days, I have no more tube patches, but I do have fever and diarrhoea.

Finally I reach the asphalt road and head to Mopti, the Venice of Mali, situated on the Niger River. Here I recover from the hardships of the desert in the home of a Malian family.


The end in Bamako

A few days later I am on my way to Djenne to visit the famous mosque. A really great work of art made of clay.

But I don’t really like it, as I have seen smaller but more beautiful clay mosques in the villages before. But maybe it’s because of the illness that has broken out again. I have headaches and dizzy spells, diarrhoea and am weak. I haven’t been able to eat for days. As I sit on the side of the road suffering and waiting for the end, a car from “Doctors without Borders” approaches and the doctor, who is supposed to cure TBC cases among children, deals with me. His diagnosis is: “Something African and flu”.

Contrary to his forecast, I still manage the 600 km to Bamako, where I end the journey after 63 days and 4700 km and board the plane home.

It was not a cycling tour in the classical sense. More like a journey by bicycle through West Africa. But in any case a great adventure.

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