Here’s a thought that popped onto my head late last night. Someone asked us where we fancied going next. Where and when will we start to plan our next expedition?
Well, leaving aside the dubious inclusion of the word ‘plan,’ we’ve been putting off visiting a place for quite some time now. Will we get there? No idea. I hope so.
Writing down these random thoughts I can see it's not going to be a great work of literature. That’s okay though. I can start on that project next week.
*Cue: peals of mocking laughter on soundtrack.*
(Non-existent soundtrack, due to credit crunch restrictions) *
Okay, where’s he going with this, you may ask?
Hang on and I’ll tell you. (That’s proper journalism, there, see? Interjecting a fictional character as a spurious means of adding dramatic impact. I can still hack this writing lark. Dismal failure, you say? Hey, only one fictional interrogator allowed. Bugger off.)
I want to go to Timbuktu. I’ve also seen it written as Timbuktu, Timbuctu, Timbuktoo, Timbouctou and Timbuktu and as the latter is the most common amongst French people, who have dominated its recent history, I’ll try and stick with that. It’s not an easy place to get to, deep inside the Sahara desert in the African state of Mali, officially classified as one of the poorest nations on Earth. It sits on the banks of the River Niger in the short-lived rainy season and the river is eight miles away for the rest of the year! A city of contrasts.
Timbuktu was a world centre of Islamic learning from the 13th to the 17th century, especially under the Mali Empire and the rule of Askia Mohammad the First. In the desolate wastes of the desert, a seat of learning was established whose fame spread across all the known world.
Timbuktu has always been hard to find. In 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris offered a reward of 7000 francs and a gold metal valued at 2,000 francs to the first European who could visit Timbuktu and return to tell their story of the mythical city.
Having researched this, I discovered the first man with a claim to the prize was a Scottish explorer, Gordon Laing. He left Tripoli in 1825 and travelled for a year and a month to reach Timbuktu. On the way, he was attacked by the ruling Tuareg nomads and was shot, cut by swords, and broke his arm. He arrived in August 1826, was unimpressed with what he described as a salt trading outpost filled with mud-walled homes in the middle of a barren desert. Laing remained for just over a month and two days after leaving he was murdered.
Didn’t get much chance to spend his winnings, then!
So, why Timbuktu? Partly because the very name has fascinated me since childhood. Partly because of where it is. Its inaccessibility is a strong attraction. The salt and spices caravan route between Marrakesh and Timbuktu has been in existence for a thousand years. In 2008 a Swiss adventurer named Andrea Vogel walked the entire 3,000 kilometres, that’s 1,800 miles, from Timbuktu to Marrakech, on foot. I read about this at the time and a seed was planted. Not that we intend to walk there! It took Vogel 71 days to cross the Saharan route on foot. We hope to do better than that.
We’ll be travelling through Morocco and the Western Sahara, through Mauritania into Mali and our destination will be in the far south, on the banks of the Niger. The rainy season is a mere 4-5 weeks, in late December to January when the river expands to the city, but it will have to be bone dry by the time we get there. We can do without exposure to the rainy season.
Like so many aspects of life, events beyond one’s control gum up the works from time to time. Mali is a pretty scary place just now. We considered making this trip a few years back but our ‘expedition’ barely reached the outer fringe of the Sahara before we changed our minds and went somewhere else instead. Maybe that was our best chance. There are many other places we want to visit so if Timbuktu has to wait a little longer, so be it.
Marigold and I have come to the conclusion we attract rather odd people. They follow us around. The other day was a case in point. I found a wallet in the street, obviously lost property and not thrown away by some miscreant after removing the contents as it contained a fair number of notes. We sat in the car and looked for clues as to the identity of the owner.
Several photos of a boxer dog, a video club membership that was five years out of date and a raffle ticket were all the evidence we could find. We had a name, but no home address.
Marigold suggested we show random passers-by the photographs of the dog to see if they recognised it.
‘Ridiculous,’ I said.
Disregarding my wisdom, Marigold proceeded to brandish the photographs before anyone unwise enough to be in the area. I watched a series of bemused expressions flit across faces and was about to suggest we go off and find a policeman when an old woman took Marigold by the arm in a distinctly agitated manner.
‘That’s Otto,’ she exclaimed.
Marigold returned, somewhat smugly, with her new found knowledge of the wallet’s owner and we set off.
‘He doesn't live anywhere near here, but that lady said he works at the supermarket and walks his dog along here every lunchtime.’
The supermarket was jam packed with customers, the staff were harassed, and it took quite a while before the familiar routine of proffering Otto’s photograph bore fruit.
‘Loading bay, down the back stairs,’ a young girl said, waving a hand in the general direction of the fish counter, ‘He’s the loading bay manager.’
We found the back stairs, eventually, and wandered down into an area rarely glimpsed by the paying customer. Otto’s owner supposedly had managerial status, but his workplace was grim indeed.
After descending the badly lit stairs we entered a long corridor far below the point at which natural light has any beneficial effect. Double swing doors had broad metal bands running across their width at trolley height, presumably a necessary precaution against damage when the trolley pusher was working alone. Despite the protective strips, the chipped paint on the doors suggested that herds of stampeding cattle passed through on a regular basis.
The partly open first door on the left was our destination, as evidenced by it bearing a grubby ‘Loading Bay Manager’ sign, slightly askew. I simply couldn't bear to walk past that sign every day and not straighten it!
There wasn’t much to see inside, even less to impress. Two swivelling typists chairs: one a lime green plastic monstrosity without arms that looked potentially lethal and a larger model with armrests, all visible areas covered in a rough tweed material. I didn’t fancy sitting on either of them for any length of time.
The desk was real wood, not chipboard, but that was its solitary virtue. The top was marred by deep scratches, cigarette burns, coffee cup rings and a complete art gallery of ink stains while four sharp corners threatened the safety of passers- by. The battered and scuffed desk contained only a leather-bound blotting pad in the exact centre. Green blotting paper, pristine, no doodles or scribbled telephone numbers. Three pens were lined up precisely on the right side of the blotting pad. Ordinary cheap functional ballpoint pens, each with their ends well chewed. The man who sat at this desk had an orderly mind, but also worried a lot.
A bottle green metal filing cabinet, four drawers, and a Victorian coat stand tilted alarmingly to one side were the room’s only other furniture.
I've worked in equally grim conditions myself in the past, but this room made me glad to have never sought work as a loading bay manager.
No sign of Otto’s owner anywhere in this underground rabbit warren and we were about to give up and seek the sanctuary in daylight when a metal shutter groaned upwards revealing a subterranean loading bay. The man who entered was very fat. The brown overall he was wearing must have belonged to his much slimmer predecessor and appeared to have been used to mop up a serious effluent spillage. By his side was, unmistakably, Otto.
The boxer dog is a handsome breed. Alas, Otto was not even remotely handsome. Even so, he wagged his stumpy tail and bounded over to greet the intruders. We introduced ourselves and made a great fuss of Otto, but were a tad disconcerted when the man we had laboured so laboriously to track down ignored us completely.
Marigold looked at me. I shrugged. What to do next? In the end we re-entered the room and I placed the wallet on the desk.
‘That's mine,’ the man said, snatching it up with a pudgy and none too clean hand.
‘We found it in the street,’ Marigold said. ‘I showed the photo of Otto to people and someone told us where to find you.’
The owner of the wallet wasn't exactly enthralled at the return of his lost property. He laboriously counted, then re-counted, the thick wad of notes it contained while scowling suspiciously at us. Finally, I could stand it no longer.
‘If we intended to steal your money, we would have done so,’ I said, ‘not go to all the trouble of finding you and returning it to you.’
His scowl intensified.
‘He’s making me feel guilty,’ Marigold whispered. Marigold cannot pass through the ‘nothing to declare’ section of an airport without looking as if she is a hardened smuggler. Guilt written all over her face, even though there’s not an atom of contraband in her luggage. I checked. Yes, the guilty face was back again.
‘We found your wallet lying in the street and returned it,’ I said again.
The man behind the desk snorted as if in disbelief. Now he’d got me feeling guilty. How to exculpate our actions in a manner sufficient to prove we were the good guys here? I had no idea.
‘I feel like a criminal now,’ Marigold whispered.
‘We should go,’ I said to her. ‘Not that we wanted one, I suspect the offer of a reward is not very likely.’
In the doorway I remembered a phrase I’d had occasion to use fairly regularly in the past.
‘Actus non facit reum nisi mens sit rea,’ I said. That’s the legal test for criminal culpability. It means any action is not necessarily criminal, unless you mean to do them with criminal intent. Finding a wallet and returning it to its owner is not even remotely a bad thing. Okay?’
The man scowled, Otto growled and we walked away.
‘Why always us?’ Marigold said as we reached the street. ‘Why do we always pick the nutters?’
I had no answer. It was true. Even doing a good deed brings us into contact with the oddest people on the planet.
‘That's it, then,’ Marigold announced. ‘No more kind and helpful.’
I nodded. She doesn't mean it. Being kind and helpful is in her DNA. Even when it means we meet up with the odd weirdo here and there.