Journey Across Africa

Below you'll find stories of my two year experience as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the small West African country of The Gambia. After my service I traveled solo, with only a small backpack, across West Africa; reaching N'Djamena, Chad after two months. Visa problems for Libya and Civil unrest in the Darfur region of Western Sudan made Chad my last stop.

Peace Corps Service: Aug. 2003 - July 2005

Journey Across Africa: July 2005 - Sept. 2005

Location: Boston, MA, United States

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

All the way to Tombouctou!

Day 31
Wed Aug 17
Start: Sevare, Mali
Mid: Douentza, Mali
End: Tombouctou, Mali

At 9:30 the next morning the car pulled up. I shared the back seat with an Italian couple named Fabio and Valentinia. They had paid 125,000 CFA each for the ride to Timbuktu, plus the hotel, plus a camel ride, plus a boat ride back. That's $250 each! I was paying $30 just for the seat. I could tell that in some sense they were getting ripped off, since it can be a lot lower - but if you go a little bit lower you disproportionally lower your comfort. The price they were paying was to be in their comfort zone, but still low enough to challenge them (overnight in the desert, for example).

The ride up took ten hours and was not what I expected. For being the legendary middle of no-where I thought sand dune and desert would surround the area. For the last hundred miles of the trip, before reaching the Niger River it was a prairie! I expected little Laura Ingles Wilder to be running through the hills, carrying her school books while Charles fixes the wagon wheel. It was only after we took the ferry across the river did sand start to creep in to the landscape. If you want deserts and dunes, and camel rides - don't go to Tombouctu. Go to Mauritania! We had dunes creeping into the roads, and seeing nothing but desert for hours and hundreds of miles! In Tombouctou you see just the beginning of the Sahara - in Chinguetti you're in it!

Across the river town of Koriume lies the road to Tombouctou, lined on both sides with trees. I felt I was entering Beverly Hills! Twenty kilometers later, and after a month of travelling I entered the middle of no-where.

We took Fabio and Valentinia to their hotel, Hotel Bouctou, which was too expensive for me. (About $12/night just for a mattress on the roof). The driver said no problem and took me to his friend's place within town.

While the tourists were mingling with each other and getting guides to the desert, I was talking to the owner of the house on his roof while brewing tea discussing the salt trade of Taoudenni. This town is about 700 kilometers further north than Tombouctou, near the northern edge of Mali, and has a salt mine. From October to around March every year caravans of salt traders come from Taoudenni (a 16-day journey) to sell their slabs of salt they have on their camels. Each camel has about six slabs weighing about 60kg. The caravans can be as big as 300 camels in one day or as little as just 60. From Tombouctou the salt is sold to Mopti, where it's sold to Bamako and spreads from there.

What I didn't learn from Mustapha, but read in the guide book, was how appalling the work in the salt mines are. You earn $60 for "six months work and are allowed to keep one out of every four bars mined. But they don't bring many back to Tombouctu where they can be sold: The nearest oasis to the mines is a three-day camel journey away and the masters provide water to their workers in exchange for salt. One 30L jug of water costs two slabs."

I slept on the roof watching the stars appear over the Sahara.


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