The children of Timbuktu know full well what their town is famous for, greeting visitors in deadpan English: "Welcome to Timbutku. Welcome to the middle of nowhere." Located on the Sahara's southern edge, where the Niger River skirts the great sand sea, Timbuktu is a mix of colour, pallor and squalor, much like Mali as a whole. The blue desert couture of the nomadic Tuaregs billows against a backdrop of grand mud-brick architecture, and if you never thought mud could be grand, it's because you haven't been to Mali.
"Timbuktu" has long signified a place so distant that going any farther is inconceivable, and for tourists in Mali, the sand-strewn town really is the end of the road - or rather, the end of a 170km dirt track from Mali's paved national highway, followed by a 45-minute ferry journey across the Niger, as wide as a lake at this point. With a group calling itself the al-Qaeda Organisation in the Islamic Maghreb active in the region, going any farther north is inadvisable due to the risk of banditry, kidnapping or worse. The American government issued a blanket travel warning for all of Mali in 2010.
The sand has long erased the footprints of ancient empires, but vestiges of Timbuktu's former academic glory remain in the form of troves of Islamic manuscripts on display at its several libraries. I visit the town's Ahmed Baba Centre, one of many collections of manuscripts left over from the days when Timbuktu rivalled Fez, Cairo and Mecca as a hub of Islamic scholarship in the 14th and 15th centuries. The caretaker shows off pages from an ancient Arabic manuscript he says was written by the hand of Avicenna himself, who died in 1037. I'm not sure I believe him, but the possibility is alluring, much like the medieval description of a city of streets paved with gold. I figure it's best to keep your imagination intact here.
Most visitors to Timbuktu are struck by the sense of desolation, but in truth, the town is more alive than it appears - and growing. Its population has doubled in the last six years from about 25,000 to 50,000, according to Miranda Dodd, a Canadian who owns Sahara Passion, a hotel and tour company, along with her Tuareg husband, Shindouk Mohamed Lamine. In the 1960s and 1970s, the population is thought to have been only about 5,000. "When we built this house, there were no solid buildings around us," says Dodd. We're sitting on a carpet in the sandy courtyard of her guest house on the northern outskirts of town, near the terminus for the occasional camel caravans that still arrive from Taoudenni, the salt mines to the north. It's a built-up neighbourhood now, in part because nomads from the surrounding desert, finding their way of life no longer viable, have poured into town.
But Timbuktu as a whole is still very much as it was centuries ago, with a diverse mix of tribes and peoples living in mud-brick dwellings that line narrow streets filled with sand, not gold, with one lively market and three historic mosques. Inevitably approached by touts selling trinkets, fabric and jewellery, tourists make a beeline for the several small museums - including some of the houses stayed in by early European explorers - and the manuscripts libraries, including a newer, modern Ahmed Baba Centre that, although already completed with South African funding, still has no firm opening date.
Arab explorers have been visiting since the days of Ibn Battuta and before, but it was not until the Paris Geographical Society offered a 10,000-franc award to the first European to return home alive from Timbuktu that René Caillié, a Frenchman, finally attempted the journey in 1828, posing as an Egyptian scholar. He spent years studying Islam, learning Arabic and memorising Quranic passages in order to avoid the fate of previous Christians who'd attempted the journey. Alexander Gordon Laing of Edinburgh, a major in Britain's Royal Africa Corps, had reached Timbuktu in 1826, only to be strangled on orders from a Tuareg sheikh on his way out.
Caillié suffered scurvy, malaria and other unidentified ailments only to reach "nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses, made of earth" in a town where "all nature wore a dreary aspect, and the most profound silence prevailed; not even the warbling of a bird was to be heard."
Sadly, this is where most contemporary descriptions start - and where they end, for visitors tend to come away, perhaps mistakenly, with the same idea. I visited one restaurant that looked like it hadn't seen a customer in a decade. Most of the plaster had fallen from the walls in the courtyard, and tattered and faded postcards, along with a torn portrait of Muammer Qadafi, president of Libya, adorned the entryway. They served a tasty omelette, with fresh bread, nonetheless.
It's a wrong impression, says Dodd, and one that stems from not understanding the nature of construction in this environment. The restaurant I visited is actually still active. "The thing about Timbuktu, and I think it's one of the things that deceived René Caillié and that deceives tourists today, is that the environment ages everything at an incredibly fast rate," she says. "It suffices to have one good dust storm and everything looks like it's been sitting around untouched for centuries." Everything here, in other words, is simultaneously falling down and being rebuilt.
This is how life goes on all over the Sahel, the arid zone between the Sahara and the wet tropics of the south, of which Mali forms the heartland, but it's especially true in the north, where the one constant is the punishing sand blown in from the nearby Saharan dunes. We get a more intimate look at Sahel life in the south, in Dogon country, where amidst a spectacular landscape of cliffs and rock formations, we hike for three days along an escarpment where a plateau overlooks the plains that stretch into neighbouring Burkina Faso.
It's theoretically possible to explore Dogon country without a guide, but virtually all tourists hire one, and doing so is well worth it. Most arrange tours from the nearby Niger river port of Mopti or, closer to the heart of Dogon country, in Bandiagara, but I've attached myself to a group of three other travellers determined to get the best deal by arranging our own transport all the way to the village of Sangha, perched atop the escarpment, where our chosen hiking trail begins. After hours of haggling, we eventually reach Sangha in an old Mercedes that barely survives a journey crossing riverbeds along the washed-out, boulder-strewn dirt road.
In Sangha, we engage the services of a wiry, 53-year-old guide named Golfis, who walks us along the cliff and eventually down to the plains below, hiking morning and afternoon with a much-needed break during the hottest hours of the day.
Sleeping on rooftops under the stars, we ponder the religion of the Dogons, who comprise about seven per cent of Mali's diverse population of about 13 million. As Golfis explains, they subscribe to a complex animist belief system; it involves fetish objects, usually mounds of earth, where animal sacrifices take place; pools with sacred crocodiles; and holy men, the spiritual heads of each village, who never bathe, but rather are believed to be licked clean by a snake that visits each night. Visitors can see all these (minus the snake) in addition to the landscape.
I end the trip in Djenné, arriving in time for the weekly Monday market, when the town explodes with colour and activity. This ancient town, which René Caillié also passed through on his way to Timbuktu, is surely more like what the explorer had in mind when he imagined Timbuktu as a visibly thriving commercial hub. With its sprawling maze of streets spreading out from the Great Mosque at its centre, at the peak of the day it's difficult to find a place to step in the plaza in front of the mosque and in the lanes surrounding it, so crowded are they with customers and merchants buying and selling everything from Tuareg jewellery and leather work, blankets and flip-flops, to deep-fried Niger catfish. After night falls, the town's children run out in groups when they see foreign tourists - chanting "toubab" (West African slang for a white person), jumping, dancing and performing scarily frenetic somersaults.
Entry to the mosque is normally forbidden to non-Muslims, but as it is currently under reconstruction, men in plain clothes loitering at the mosque's various entrances demand a negotiable - but not too negotiable - $10 to $20 (Dh37 to Dh73) to let tourists have a peek inside. We are wary of offending local sensibilities and in any case, we are more than satisfied with an up-close look at the majestic exterior.
Not only does the Great Mosque of Djenné form the perfect backdrop to a market that is surely as frenzied as it was during the peak of the caravan days, but the Unesco-listed building stands at the pinnacle of Sahelian mud-brick architecture. The distinctive sticks protruding from the sides of these mosques, including three smaller but similar ones in Timbuktu, are actually built-in scaffolding. Every couple of rainy seasons, the townspeople climb the walls and pack mud back onto the surface. In this dusty land where the baobabs meet the dunes, cities expand and contract, manuscripts crumble, the sands shift and buildings decay - forever falling down, but forever being rebuilt at the same time.