Tuesday 24 Nov
Timbuktu is famous for being famous. Of course the history section of the guide book explains that there were originally good reasons for its reputation. Once, it was a crossroads for trade in the desert, and an important centre of Islamic scholarship. Today, it's rather apparent that it's in the middle of nowhere and being swallowed up by the sand. Since the trade routes are no longer important (with minor exceptions like the excellent rock salt that comes from somewhere in the north of Mali), there is no reason for anything of interest to happen here. And in fact, it seems that nothing does happen.
There are a few historical sights, although you largely have to imagine what it would have been like for the first European explorers who made the difficult journey to come here and find that, even then, there was nothing much to see. To make it feel like we'd seen something, we tracked down one of the research centres where they store old manuscripts, which are actually quite interesting. Unfortunately the place we visited had one of the most inappropriate guides ever encountered, who spent the whole time we were there repeating irrelevant details in a booming voice and insisting on how an Australian TV crew had been there a year ago.
Worse still (especially for me), in Timbuktu there is almost nothing to eat. Even a plate of rice and sauce is extremely difficult to track down among the complete lack of activity in the sandy streets. It's like you're struggling against an enormously weighty lethargy which really can't be defeated, and it's better not to expend any energy because then you won't need to eat as much. Fortunately we had leftover fresh food from our boat supplies, and the friendly guy at our hotel let us use the kitchen, so we ate well while the supplies lasted. Buying things at the market was predictably expensive: the food would have been transported up the river on a boat exactly like ours.
Anyway, we survived. In the end, the point of coming to Timbuktu is that it was really hard to get here, and it's really remote, but enduring the remoteness is an experience. In any case, this is also the furthest inland we will get. From here we will head south and west towards the coast, and hopefully things will get easier (and there will be more fruit!).