The deep Sahara looks like this.

Or this.

Or this.

This is what they call the “rien de rien,” the nothing of nothingness.

Do you really want to go to Timbuktu?

It’s out here in the deep Sahara.

Do you really want to discover its secrets? Unlock its mysteries?

If you do, you won’t be alone. Donanne and I wanted to go there – and did – in 1970. The town-life pictures that follow are from that time. Since I had neglected to cross the Sahara when covering Africa for The Christian Science Monitor, Donanne and I took a look at it in 2001. The desert photos are from that trip.

Two hundred years ago hundreds of young romantics wanted to visit Timbuktu. It was a fabled city of gold. No one in Europe knew where it was: out there somewhere in the Sahara. To be the first European to find the place? That would bring you instant fame, riches probably and the eternal gratitude of your countrymen since there was an intense rivalry among European nations to be the first to find it, the first to establish trade relations with it. Finding it was bound to be difficult. Tuaregs guarded the desert. They haunted the caravan routes.

And Mohammedans – as they were called then – were thought to kill all infidels. Sometimes they did.

Here, by the way, is what Timbuktu looked like in 1970. The young lady carries a bottle on her head. Cool, hunh?

Despite the challenges two centuries ago, plenty of people rose to meet them. Scores of them set off: explorers, restless adventurers dressed in disguise, unknowns hungry for fame, officers eager for glory and wealth. Eccentrics and fools went, too. There was even an unrequited lover, a wealthy Dutch woman who assembled a party and marched into the sea of sand.

They started off pluckily. They gathered information, recruited guides, many of them unreliable, some treacherous. Then they slogged into the Sahara’s inferno. They fought off thirst, trusted mirages, survived on unfamiliar food, trudged past the bones of failed caravans. They crossed country that looked like this…

and tore open the veil of mystery with which the desert covers itself. With only two or three exceptions, they were never seen again.

You’ll be better off than they were. You’ll survive.

But you will almost certainly not unlock the secrets of Timbuktu. Within a matter of hours, however, you’ll discover facts which decades of valiant effort failed to unmask. In a sense the main fact which eluded detection was this: man’s enormous capacity for self-deception, for disregarding information contrary to what he wishes to believe.

Before the New World’s discovery, Africa was Europe’s prime supplier of gold. It came from somewhere in or beyond the Sahara. Most knowledgeable Europeans thought its source was a city of fabulous wealth, the seat of a university, a center of sophistication and Muslim culture, the hub of caravan traffic. Timbuktu!

The most determined of its explorers was Major Gordon Laing, a Scot fired with ambition to be the first white man to enter Timbuktu. Major Laing had led some inland explorations while serving in Sierra Leone, and the idea of Timbuktu obsessed him. He persistently sought permission for the journey. He prepared himself for its rigors by sleeping on the floor and writing with his left hand. As things turned out, the latter exercise was not a bad idea.

Major Laing arrived in Tripoli to undertake the Timbuktu mission in May, 1825. By early July he had asked the British consul’s daughter to marry him. She accepted but her father denied him. As a result Laing and the horrified consul broke off speaking relations; the suitor camped outside the city. Ultimately the consul granted the couple permission to marry. But since he doubted his authority to perform legal marriages, he insisted that the major pledge – in writing – that he would not consummate the marriage until he returned from Timbuktu. The major agreed. (We hope he had the sense to break the agreement. Probably he didn’t.)

Two days after the ceremony he marched into the desert.

Circling around a local civil war, Laing got to Ghadames. He spent days negotiating the onward journey with guides who demanded more money. He received inquisitive stares, doctored local inhabitants, was pestered for handouts, hungered for mail and burned with love for his bride.

He pushed on. He reached an oasis called In Salah. There he was such a curiosity that he had to nail up his door. He also feared for his life. Besides being a Christian among Muslims, he was also thought to be the leader of an earlier expedition which had shot and wounded a local resident.

After weeks at In Salah the Laing party joined a larger caravan and re-entered the desert. News of the major’s presumed wealth preceded the caravan as it ventured nervously through country known for civil wars, feuds and marauders. Ultimately Tuaregs followed the expedition for five days. Before dawn on the sixth day they attacked the explorer’s party. Laing sustained multiple wounds, the loss of several subordinates and the theft of virtually all his funds.

The caravan continued, leaving the wounded leader to follow as best he could. Some 400 miles later he reached the village of Sidi el Muktar. There the village chief befriended the explorer, fed and sheltered him. He advised him not to enter Timbuktu due to local unrest.

Laing was determined to go on. Before he could do so, a plague struck the village. It killed the chief and all surviving members of the Timbuktu mission except Laing himself.

Finally the chief’s son agreed to take the scarred and impoverished explorer to his destination – in exchange for all his possessions. The major entered the fabled city thirteen months after he left Tripoli. The only surviving account of his findings and impressions is a short letter – written with his left hand. It tells almost nothing.

Due to personal danger, Laing is thought to have sent his journal back to Tripoli by messenger. Speculation exists that it fell into the hands of the French consul in Tripoli, who destroyed or suppressed it for reasons of nationalistic pride. The major himself joined a small caravan headed for Morocco. Three nights out the caravan’s leader murdered him.

The es-Saheli Mosque at Timbuktu, 1970

At the time of this treachery, an enterprising young Frenchman named René Caillié was preparing himself to enter Timbuktu in disguise. He had lived among Arabs, had studied their Koran and their customs, and spoke some of their language. He had also concocted an improbable story: that he was an Arab carried away to France as an infant who now wished to return to his home in Egypt.

In March, 1826, he converted his savings into gold, silk handkerchiefs, knives, beads, and tobacco and started inland – on foot – along the Rio Nunez in present-day Guinea. At the end of thirteen months, five of them spent in an African village recovering from an illness, Caillié reached his destination.

“I looked around and found that the sight before me did not answer my expectations,” he wrote. “The city presented, at first view, nothing but a mass of ill-looking houses built of earth.”

Caillié stayed in Timbuktu for two weeks. He gathered information, then joined a caravan headed for Morocco. He was particularly anxious not to return west, fearing accusations that he had never reached Timbuktu.

The journey across the desert took almost three months. Spinning pillars of whirlwinded sand attacked the column of 1,400 camels. Thirst and mirages tormented Caillié. Suspecting he was a Christian, members of the caravan taunted and threw stones at him.

He survived the crossing only to find that a Frenchman disguised as a Muslim could expect little help even from his country’s diplomats.

The French consul in Rabat, a Jewish merchant, offered him no help. He begged for food and slept in a cemetery. The consul in Tangier repeatedly refused him entry, on one occasion shouting: “Turn out this dog of a beggar!” Ultimately he relented, however, and arranged passage for Caillié to France. There he was greeted as a hero.

Barth stayed in this house in Agadez. The plaque beside the
door commemorates the event.

Twenty-five years later Timbuktu received a six-month visit from Heinrich Barth, a German who spent five years exploring the central Sudan. Barth brought eminent qualifications to his role of explorer; he was inquisitive, imperturbable, somewhat humorless, a scholar, an Arabist, an authority on the desert, and a physical culture buff.

In Timbuktu Barth located the Tarikh es Sudan, a 17th-century history of the Songhai people. He quoted extensively from it in his five-volume report on his explorations.

Barth found that Timbuktu and its commerce had declined since the height of the Songhai Empire. The major cause had been the conquest of Songhai in 1591 by a Moroccan force of 5,000 cavalry and 2,000 infantry. These troops made a four-month trek across the desert, defeated the Songhai warriors, who had never seen firearms, and caused permanent disruption of trade. Thus, 200 years after the invasion Timbuktu was no longer the golden city of European legends – if in fact it ever had been.

It is still there for you to visit. You needn’t slog across desert wastes to reach it. And you won’t suffer the explorers’ hardships when you get there.

You’ll find it a dusty, baked-yellow town on the edge of the desert, a small place of broad vistas and narrow alleyways, a place which clings to its secrets, a place which is both the end of the world and the center of one. To reach it you’ll have flown over enormous sand-hued plains, an endless wasteland through which the broad, flat Niger inches slowly, like an unmotivated snake about to nap in the sun. Some travelers reach it by boats, not unlike this one.  I do not advise such a trip. It’s several days from Mopti and the benches have no backs.

The sun will shine relentlessly. With seeming hammer blows it will chisel your dark shadow into the ground. Heat will thicken the air; you will move through it as if through endless layers of invisible curtain. They will part for you reluctantly.

You’ll find the hotel rude or luxurious, depending on your expectations, depending on your experience of Africa and where you’ve been before. Your room will be dark, the heat even thicker than outside, the walls of a rough-finished mud-cement. Your bed will be hard. Like the market in Bamako your pillow and towels will smell of spices; the scents may enthrall you or make you retch. With luck you will happen to get the electric fan. Its cord may still lack a plug. A little ingenuity will solve that problem, enabling you to sleep in a warm wind.

The bathroom through the open archway will be basic, but private. The toilet may need a seat. The shower will offer water at a single temperature: available. Best not to drink it.

When thirst hits, you’ll sit out on the terrace, under a sagging and ripped stretch of canvas and try to slake the longing with African beer or tiny quarter-pint tins of chilled Algerian grapefruit juice. You quaff them in utter stillness. Your eyes will fall on the green oasis to the left, on the water hole to the right. Tuaregs will bring their camels to drink there, then shed their clothes and bathe.

At night a dark, diminished heat will surround you. You will dine on the terrace. Naked light bulbs will attract insects; these in turn will lure frogs up out of the oasis to feed. They will croak as music squeaks from a phonograph and, miraculously, the waiters will not step on them.

Your bread will taste of sand, your couscous will taste of sand, your pudding will taste of sand, your tea will taste of sand. You will never forgive yourself if you left your toothbrush behind.

During school vacations your companions will be Peace Corpsmen. They will complain about the cost of the lodging and drone an endless monotony of African tales. Like war stories in a barracks they will drive you from the hotel, out for a pre-bed stroll through the town. In the marketplace the soccer games – sometimes played with oranges – will still be in progress. You will wander to the main square, stare at the stars, gaze at the Beau Geste fort and return. You will not enter the tangle of alleyways; you might not find your way out.

By daylight you will wander through them, visit the covered market, see where Laing and Caillié stayed, sip mint tea with a qadi, and inspect the es-Saheli mosque designed by a Spanish architect of the mid-1300s.

Children will pester you for sweets, for coins, and attention. You will photograph them and notice that some are light-skinned and well-clothed while their playmates are black and naked. You will also remark that some people live in well-built houses of stone while others live in tents, that dark-skinned men trudge back and forth with animal skins full of water while light-skinned men talk business in the twilight.

You will wonder how these people relate to each other, ask yourself if slavery still exists here as it did in 1960. You will see that Timbuktu really is a world of subtle, highly structured and hidden relationships. And you will suspect correctly that it will not yield up its secrets to a transient like you.

Even so, a certain moment will come. There will be no sound. Colors will sparkle with absolute clarity. The air will lay cool on your skin. Your nostrils will carry a memory of spices. In that moment you will watch some silent, age-old movement: women carrying water, Tuaregs leading camels, children playing. And in that moment Timbuktu will put its hold on you.

You will wonder: Was it worth the effort to come? Laing asked himself that. So did Caillié and Barth.

You will know how to answer when you’ve been there.

Note: On Monday, April 2, 2012, the New York Times reported “Tuareg rebels overran the ancient desert crossroads of Timbuktu over the weekend.” These rebels are now said to control the vast, empty north of Mali. Army officers recently overthrew the elected Malian government as a result of military reverses. These developments are consequences of the downfall of the Ghadafi regime in Libya.

Next post: One of those women a man never forgets.