• Heather O’Neal


We made it to Bamako. Things are very interesting here! A lot to get used to… I like it, I think. We have to be very careful talking to strangers who want to be our guide, etc. Last night in Dakar we, Pushkar and Sasha from Switzerland and I, were surrounded by maybe 4-5 men wanting to sell something, sponges, watches, gas stove pipes…. I sensed trouble and turned away to get out of the group and another 2 men came around. Sasha’s car was near, thank goodness and we jumped in. As I shut the car door two other men rushed up from behind the car – maybe to grab my backpack.. which I don’t usually carry at night. We were just coming back from the TV station – Channel 2 – one of two national stations for Senegal. I had my video camera and captured Pushkar’s interview for 20 minutes on a program that will air on National Senegal TV tonight at 9PM. We will miss it but Sasha will get the CD of the show to give to me to pick up when I return in November. The fright in the dark Dakar Streets was a reminder. Don’t carry passport, plane tickets, credit cards, cash, traveler’s checks and valuable video footage all in the same bag.

We are fine and having a fun. I’m not too sore from our 32! mile bike ride tour du Dakar. Mom, I will cc you in my next message to the manager at my bank. Hopefully it’s not much of a problem. Another tourist from Holland at the bank here in Bamako said that sometimes the credit card is denied when actually the money was transferred Something about the bank hub in Morocco. It’s a bit confusing, but I need the bank to check my account to see if more was withdrawn than I actually got.

This computer is slow and hard to type because a few of the keys are in the wrong place, specifically the a, w, m, and the ‘, ., ?, and !.

Love, Heather

Adventures in Timbuktu

October 17, 2004

So this is Timbuktu, on the southern edge of the Sahara. It is a very sandy place. The town is slowly being swallowed up by traveling sand dunes. Inside the doorways of the older houses the floor drops about a foot below street level. The streets are getting higher and the houses are getting lower as the sand moves in. Someday it may be one big dune. Mother Nature must have a plan.

It is hot, very hot here. The sand is everywhere. I wanted to wear sandals today, however after walking from the shower to the room, my feet were caked in mud, fine dusty sand mixed with shower water. I opted for my other shoes with socks which are now full of sand too.

Sandals seem like a good idea, but they have minimal traction and can even get seriously stuck in deep sand. No matter which shoes, it is slow going, and the sand will find its way between the toes and eventually into the ears and even into the mouth. After a few hours here bite down and you’ll notice.

The bread here has to be the world’s best looking bread. Mmm. But it is the hardest to swallow. It comes with sand too.

Each time the wind blows, I can feel a thin layer of dust on the paper. I brush it off and it returns. The sand is probably a problem for pens.

The hotel room is like a mud cave with a dirt floor, and we agreed to stay even though we both experienced the physical taste of dirt in the mouth and nose upon entering. It is like a prison cell, no cable TV, no windows. Actually there is a small hole that lets in one thin ray of dusty light. It is not big enough to crawl through, and it´s too high to jump to. It’s hard to tell

what the view might be, maybe a neighbor’s square mud house. It is hot in there too. No lights either. I am waiting for the dried mud on the ceiling to fall.

It is Ramadon now, the largest Muslim holiday, and the locals are eating goat today. They are cooking a large animal in the mud oven in the courtyard here where I sit. The oven seems to be generating MORE heat than the sun. Add a little smoke to the sand that’s in the air and you may picture what I am experiencing now. I can hear the large animal broiling, bubbling, roasting, not a favorite sound for vegetarians.

One of the young servant girls just walked by carrying a large pot on her head and unfortunately I saw the contents: three severed goat heads. Yikes! The image will haunt me forever.

We spent most of the day exploring the ancient streets of Timbuktu. I liked the markets the best. The narrow mud alleys were lined with mud brick houses. Most had medieval castle-like doors and windows with metal decorations and large hinges. Some of the mud walls were textured with hand prints, all hand crafted, made by many hands like a sand castle.

October 18, 2004

Last night we had a hard time sleeping. It was extremely hot in that dark dirt room. We decided to go to the roof instead so we found ourselves hauling the mattresses (foam) and pillows up the uneven mud stairs in the dark.

The manager at the hotel (the eldest son) is very attentive to our every need, including camel trekking and souvenir shopping. He seemed to expect we might want to sleep on the roof and has warned us kindly NOT to walk in the center as it is possible to fall through the mud thatching. Wouldn’t that be frightful to come flying down through the ceiling mattresses and all!

We got to the safe area of the roof uninjured and slept under the stars for a while until the desert winds blew making it too cold. We then carefully hauled the mattresses back to the room below – like walking on a tight-rope with a load.

The hot room was still extremely hot, so we positioned the mattresses close to the doorway and left the doors wide open, but even that didn’t help. Heat must radiate off mud walls. To make matters worse, a neighbor broke out his drum at roughly 3AM and played away as if no one within miles were trying to sleep. Maybe it had something to do with the holiday. After about an hour of drum playing, the morning prayers began blasting over loud speakers somewhere nearby.

The drums and prayers lasted until it began to get light outside. This was when a family of flies moved into the room. We hardly slept at all, and we paid 10 dollars for the experience.

Our camel driver is fasting today since it’s Ramadon. He has just returned from collecting two camels that were a 15km walk away. He said he was tired since he had to walk there and back through the desert.

Pushkar and I loaded up on water and beer for our overnight camel trek. At 5PM the camels were ready, sitting in the sand at the end of the road waiting for us.

It was a thrill to be atop a camel as he stood on four spindly legs. Watching Pushkar’s camel it looked like the camel’s legs could bend backwards and forwards, like they have two knees in opposite directions. I’ll have to study that later. First forward, then back, then standing. Hang on.

The tired camel guide decided to sleep instead of deal with us so he hired his 10 year old cousin to take us for a spin through the sands to his aunt’s house. The camel driver and his family are Toureg, the indigenous ethnic group that lives in the Timbuktu area. We would visit a traditional Toureg house and have dinner in the sand.

The camel driver who was now home sleeping had said we would trek 3 hours into the desert. His young cousin, however stopped after only an hour. The sun was setting, and we decided an hour in the camel saddle was maybe enough. But we would not be happy until we found a BIG dune. Somehow we communicated this even though the young man didn’t speak English or French which we were learning. The boy only nodded and said “way”, yes in Toureg maybe.

At the top of a nearby dune, we decided this was a good place. It was a long way down to the ground from the camel in standing position, and as the camel sat it felt a bit like falling. Hang on. Getting down is more scary than up, the camel bends to his knees forward, then the back knees bend back and down, and finally we could climb off.

The boy placed a blanket in the sand where we could sit and ponder the desert. The boy and his younger friend who had joined us on the way tied up the camels – so we thought. They then went back to the Aunt’s house to fix dinner. Pushkar and I enjoyed a beer on the dunes of the Sahara as the sun set.

Part of our entertainment was watching the camels. We weren’t sure how the boys had tied them exactly. At first we thought their legs were tied in a kneeling position so they couldn’t stand. However, soon one of the camels managed to stand and then the other. Maybe they had tied their legs together so they couldn’t walk very far, a strategy we had already seen used for donkeys. The camels moved slowly and paused to snack on the leaves of a nearby bush.

Pushkar and I got to talking about something, and about an hour passed before the boys returned. They looked surprised to see that the camels were not with us. Even from the top of the biggest dune the camels were no where to be seen. The two boys set out to find them.

After a long time, the boys returned to tell us (sign language) that they had seen the camels running into the depths of the Sahara. They pointed in the direction of Algeria! No luck. No camels. Gone? Oh my. Really gone?

The elder young camel herder would set out to look for them again, and motioned this time he would walk a long long way to find them. I wanted to go, but he thought I should stay and Pushkar should go instead – one of those cultural male/female things. Pushkar insisted I could keep up so the young boy agreed. I put my shoes on for the trek. Pushkar did not.

It was dark by now so the headlight helped. The boy seemed happy to see that. We headed out.

Not too long after leaving our big dune camp site, Pushkar complained that the thorny bushes in the area were too thorny. Without shoes, trekking was difficult. He decided to go back. He clearly said he would stay at the big dune and wait for us there.

The older boy and I walked quickly. He held the light, waving it over the ground as if looking for tracks. It seemed like he was following something, but from the looks of the sand, several camels had gone through the area over the last year or two. So this must be what it is like to look for a needle in a haystack. Two camels in the Sahara? Forget it.

I had no idea where we were, but the boy knew the desert well. We continued at a steady pace and finally found ourselves at the big dune again after about an hour. However now Pushkar was missing. He was probably out looking for US. The boy surveyed the area and found Pushkar’s shoe tracks and thought we should follow. So we did.

About a half an hour later once well into the desert, I heard a whistle and knew it was the lost soul we were looking for. We called and whistled back and forth, listening to the exact direction in the dark, and finally we managed to find Pushkar in the black vastness of wherever we were.

Pushkar of course had gotten lost and could not find the big dune or us. He said he’d been calling and calling for a long time, but while the desert echoes from one quiet dune to the other, it is silent when a dune is in the way. I’ll have to study the desert acoustics later. The two boys, Pushkar and I managed to get back to our campsite, though we were still without the two camels.

The boys said it was time for dinner. We had just lost two HUGE camels in the Sahara Desert, and it was time for dinner? I was sure the boys would get in lots of trouble, perhaps something like this was a death sentence or a life in prison. Who knew? Dinner could wait! I thought we should go back to Timbuktu and wake up the sleeping guide who spoke English.

Instead we went to the aunt’s house and had dinner. When I saw dinner, I was sure we had overpaid for the one hour camel ride. The rice was plain and sandy. They gave us one bowl and one spoon to share. There were no vegetables like the English speaking guide had promised.

We had lost their camels. Maybe we didn’t pay enough. I ate three bites and left the rest for Pushkar. He eats anything.

Soon after dinner in the moonlight, the English speaking guide appeared carrying a flashlight and a cell phone. Everyone in Africa has a cell phone. I wondered how they held up with all the sand.

Before the guide had a chance to chew the two young boys out, I gave him a piece of my mind, saying it was not their fault and that he had left us in the hands of children and what did he expect…. I told the whole story of how we looked and looked for the camels and even showed him the bleeding scratches on my leg from those plants. He didn’t seem too phased and told me not to worry.

It seems the camels would most likely return to their home 15km away where they eat and sleep when not working with tourists. I felt MUCH better knowing they were not gone forever, though still I could not sleep. It was cold in the middle of the night. Bandits could have come to take us but they didn’t. I watched several shooting stars as the glow of Timbuktu lit the distant horizon.

The next morning there were two new camels ready to take us back to Timbuktu.

Adventures Leaving Timbuktu

From my Journal October 20, 2004:

In an effort to avoid the hassle of trying to find reasonable transportation at a reasonable price, we decided to walk. I was certain the guide book said the road from Timbuktu to the Niger River was nine kilometers. That we could do in about two hours. Two bottles of water should be enough.

Well. After two hours and two bottles of water, the Niger River was STILL no where to be found. The desert was an endless sea of sand that persisted even when we got to where we thought the river should be. And by now we were well out of water.

We found a man here in the middle of nowhere on his bicycle. He said he’d been riding for the last YEAR to get from England to this point on the planet. It took him six days, he said, pushing his bike through deep sand to get from Mopti to here, a seven hour jeep ride for us. He, like Pushkar, was on a world tour on his bicycle which he planned would take him three years. They talked shop, trading stories, visiting cards and websites.

Our English speaking friend guessed we had another five kilometers to the river – maybe more. We wished him luck, and we continued on our journeys in opposite directions.

By now the sun had set long ago, and it was really really dark. Puskhar and I walked along the lonely desert highway. Walking, walking, walking. My feet were starting to feel like heavy bricks, and each step was like walking on nails – not something that happens to me often. My backpack was too heavy. But the thirst was worse than anything else. We were both SOOOOO incredibly thirsty. I’ve never been thirsty like this before. Where were the huts, the people, the desert oasis? Where was the river? Water? Waaater? Waaaaaater?

The next town never came, not even after a few more miles passed under our feet. The trees and bushes along the side of the road stood like people making us wonder if we were alone. Were there people waiting for us in the shadows? Was someone about to jump out and take all our money, all our stuff, our passports? “Stop thinking about it,” I would say to Pushkar. “We are fine. No one is out to get us.”

Then a minute later, Pushkar is running after a truck that is whizzing by. The truck slows and then stops. He agrees to a price I didn’t hear (of course we have to pay!), and then a split second before we hop in the back, Pushkar realizes the driver wanted another ZERO, meaning the price was more like $100 rather than $10. We say “No way!” And the vehicle speeds off without us.

Again we were walking and walking in heavy shoes, carrying heavy packs on this endless dark stretch of pavement. At this point we took a few rest stops, sitting on the side of the road, wondering where on earth the town and the river had gone. Had we taken a wrong turn? It was hard standing on two feet again under the backpack after sitting down. If we didn’t have a load, I am sure we would have been dancing in the desert breezes. Instead we were really suffering now. The shadows were confusing and a few potholes were deep. A flashlight might have helped, but we didn’t want to call attention to ourselves in case there were bad guys waiting behind the next tree.

Finally we were ecstatic to see a single light way far away in the distance. It looked like it would take a week to get there. However, several large long bends in the road later, we were finally in Kourmarie. We couldn’t imagine the day we would ever see bottled water again not to mention Sprite, Coke or Lemon Fanta! But the moment finally came at around 10PM.

The town of Korioume was much smaller than I had remembered from the jeep windows on the way in, and the river was much wider. The road abruptly ended at the last house and the river was on the other side. There were only a few small huts and one “restaurant” of sorts in Korioume. This was where the one and only television in town was blaring French drama to a captive audience of maybe 20 natives, all sitting in white plastic chairs in the sandy area in front of the shop. We had to cross in front of the TV to get into the “restaurant” so we didn’t go unnoticed.

The restaurant owner greeted us loudly and lured us inside where several large bugs flew around a light bulb on the wall. We were surprised to find two American tourists here, Kait from Ohio and Jimmy from Virginia. They were living in Dakar, Senegal while on a semester abroad program, and Mali was a two week diversion for them while on a school break. We chatted and told them of our hardships walking from Timbuktu in the dark with no water.

We ordered bottled water and Sprite and Coke and Lemon Fanta – yum! – though hardly cold. Upon review of the guide book, the distance from Timbuktu to here was 19 kilometers rather than 9. We made it in 5 hours and guzzled down two large bottles of water and two not-so-cold Sprites for me and two not-so-cold Cokes for Pushkar. While chatting with Kait and Jimmy, Pushkar concentrated on a large piece of ice that barely fit inside a big tin cup. He put the Lemon Fanta on top where hopefully the ice would cool it to a drinkable temperature. Even the warm Sprite tasted OH so good!!

Pushkar and I were certainly sweating from our journey, and I was now struggling to cover my uncovered ankles and arms and neck with clothes from my LARGE and HEAVY backpack. The light above the table was attracting several million bugs including a trillion mosquitoes. Avoiding them wasn’t easy. I was taking malaria pills daily just in case.

Fortunately Pushkar remembered we had mosquito coils tucked away in my backpack somewhere so we dug them out. This was the true test, and I am convinced as of that night, they work pretty darn well. The room cleared up miraculously while we read the cardboard box only to learn of the hazards of inhaling such toxins too often.

At this point the restaurant owner insisted we make a decision on boat tickets. He said a big “Cargo Pinasse” would be leaving at 7AM the next morning. The private small Pinasses are much nicer – according to the guidebook – and the tourist boats are probably the most luxurious at $200 to $500 per person. The latter option was certainly not within our budget.

Pushkar and I were sooo tired, sore feet, sore minds, sooo thirsty and perhaps a bit delirious too. Without thinking, we opted to go with whatever Kait and Jimmy had organized for themselves. Besides they spoke French, and we figured they might be getting better deals than we had been.

We ended up paying $40 each for tickets on the 7AM cargo Pinasse. The restaurant owner collected our money with a smile, making his total sale close to $200 for the four of us. Hum? That seemed high – not to mention it was in addition to all the Coke and Sprite we had just consumed.

The man said our tickets included meals and a place to sleep on the boat. We would be on this boat – mind you – for the next THREE days! Kait and Jimmy actually had the man write this agreement down on the back of their tickets. “This ticket includes three meals a day and a place to sleep,” they wrote and had him sign it. They too had been burned a few times too many. It sounded good enough for us, though as usual, we hadn’t a clue exactly what we were getting into.

The TV was still blaring outside the open doors and windows of the one room restaurant. It was late and with our tickets in hand, it was time to think about sleeping somewhere. The restaurant man produced a blue mosquito net which he wanted to sell to us, and of course I bought it and probably over paid. Kait and Jimmy had already booked what most normal hotels would call “the closet” next to the main room. They paid 3000 CFA ($6!) for it, and they reported there were no mattresses, the room was extremely HOT, and it was much like a prison cell.

The restaurant owner offered Pushkar and I a thin woven mat on the front porch (behind the television) for the same price. We quickly decided instead to go down the street and sleep outside along the road somewhere – for free.

The restaurant owner then offered us the mat and a small sheltered area in front of his shop. “For free?” we asked. Could we have that in writing please? It was not a very nice place, but it was FREE!? Nothing is free for tourists in this country! We took it right away and strung up the new mosquito net, making it one of the best places we had slept so far. The net was like a little tent. The TV was finally off and the temperature was good and all was well.

The ground was hard however and not so comfortable. And to make matters worse, the music started at 1:30 AM. Soon the party was out of control. Drunk people came out of no where and were tripping around outside our mosquito net in the dark. The music was incredibly LOUD, and sometimes the drunk conversation was louder. Most of the blast came from inside the little concrete restaurant where Kait and Jimmy were sleeping? How? What a ruckus!

People were walking around as if going somewhere all night long. I was SO angry. I could not sleep at all. The volume on the boom-box was shaking the entire town. The fish in the river must have been thoroughly annoyed. Soon a few people were dancing in the sandy area outside the restaurant. Had we been sleeping on the porch for 3000CFA ($6!), we would have been in the center of the dance floor. Good thing we didn’t pay for that privilege!

It was way too loud, and there was even another party at the other end of the beach-like area by the river. I might not have minded if the music were the good kind of African music that I had heard on the bus and in the market in Timbuktu, but this music was really bad. It was the yelling, clanking, crashing, bad-recording, trying-to-be-something-it’s-not, disco-like music! No. Not good. And it blared on all night long.

All I could do was watch the shadows through the mosquito net. A few donkeys passed going one way, then a dog skipped by the other way, then children ran following the dog. There was a lot of activity taking place in front of our mosquito net. Pushkar finally woke up after an hour had gone by. “Go tell them to be quiet,” I said. He mumbled something and put a sweatshirt over his head.

Finally the party ended at 4AM sharp. I checked my watch. We got two hours of sleep after that.

The boat was supposed to leave at 7AM so we were up by six. Everyone was waking up and was walking around our net. We weren’t the only ones sleeping outside. People were now running around, busy. What were they doing?

We started to pack up the mosquito net as the sun came up, beaming across the wide Niger River. Soon we were ready to catch the boat, however, of course the boat wasn’t ready for us. When we learned which one it was, we wondered how we would last for THREE ENTIRE DAYS. Hum? What on earth would that be like? Three whole days there? That’s a really long time. We climbed inside.

Heather O’Neal Of Global Interest LLC Adventure Travel Ann Arbor, Michigan

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