As far as Timbuktu – by Charles Loots

Sand, sun and stars

It was hot. A debilitating heat, not the sort of heat found on the sunny sands of a Cape Town beach but the kind of heat found only in the harsh Sahara desert, the land of thirst, where extreme energy-sapping temperatures seem to radiate from the very ground itself. Behind me, in the distance, lay the fabled Malian town of Timbuktu, which I was heading away from in a south-westerly direction. Since childhood I’d heard the word thrown about to highlight the notion of far-flung remoteness in conversation, but never in my wildest dreams did I ever believe I would experience the place.

The land of thirst – a camel skeleton in the Sahara.

The land of thirst – a camel skeleton in the Sahara.

A few days before I had flown in to the remote airport, which as we approached it, was nothing but a thin strip of black anchored in a vast sea of Saharan sand. The wheels squeaked onto the tarmac and the noisy overhead turboprops seemed to kick up a gear as we taxied towards the lonesome terminal building. As we bundled out of the plane the paraffin smell of jet fuel being topped into the Let-410 tanks, mixed with the ambient heat and dust, hung over me as I surveyed my new surrounds.

As I emerged onto the everyday side of the airport, the few passengers I had travelled with began moving off in clapped-out old taxis with their signature fan-belt screech, and others were welcomed by family or friends who had come to fetch them. I felt the vastness of the place and this was accentuated by the sound of the airport official closing and locking the door of the building behind me. Clearly we were the last and quite possibly the only flight of the day.

Sahara - turban and shades

Sahara – turban and shades

I waited for a Land Cruiser or something similar which I imagined would fetch me as per my arrangement. Well, in truth the arrangement was that I’d be met at the airport. About a quarter of an hour later, as the sun was turning from yellow to orange and getting low on the horizon, the airport felt pretty well abandoned; a Tuareg who was riding a camel with another one in tow appeared. I couldn’t really see his face as he was wearing a turban. He pulled up beside me and with a lot of grunting, snorting and belly-aching the camels went down onto their knees and this barefooted, robe-clad individual hopped off. He pumped my hand up and down with an enthusiastic handshake and said, “Messieur Charl Loot! Messieur Charl Loot!” I wasn’t sure if this was a question or a statement but it didn’t matter; what mattered to me was the hospitable demeanour of my new acquaintance. His name was Mohammed and after a few quick pleasantries he began to tie my baggage to the sides of his spare camel.

We pulled into the hotel grounds, and here I use the term “hotel” loosely. It was basic, but although it lacked a few creature comforts it was functional for my purposes.

The Niger River - which runs through Mali and past Timbuktu. Many boats have sails made from old fertiliser bags sewn together or make-shift sheeting.

The Niger River – which runs through Mali and past Timbuktu. Many boats have sails made from old fertiliser bags sewn together or make-shift sheeting.

I grabbed a Flag beer out of the mini-bar and flopped onto a worse for wear concave old bed. The air-conditioning unit had long since stopped working and the still atmosphere of the darkened room was hot and stale. I popped the lid off the cold beer and washed away the day’s dust. Before I had left Bamako for Timbuktu I had received an email from an old friend and mentor who also happens to be one of South Africa’s foremost veterans within the hunting scene and very well known. Aside from teaching me about wildlife, hunting, and bush flying we’d also had long discussions about the splendours of women, business, and life in general. He’s been a source of unfaltering support for just about as long as I can remember and had a great appetite for adventure. I hadn’t had time to read what I expected to be a lengthy mail. But, because I had explained my trip to him, I expected it to be as such and so I had quickly printed it and stuffed it into a pocket as I hustled out of my room in Bamako. I now remembered it as I relaxed and sipped back on the cold bottle of suds. Feeling a little daunted and somewhat on my own, what better time to savour the letter, which was no doubt full of wisdom and sanguine advice, and which no doubt would offer a little comfort for the lone explorer venturing into the unknown. I unscrunched the paper from my pocket and stared, as it simply read:

Sahara - Desert dwelling

Sahara – Desert dwelling

Tim and me, a-huntin’ went…Met three *friendly ladies [edited] in a pop-up tent…They was three, we was two…So I bucked one and Timbuktu… HAHA! Good luck on your adventure boy!  A mosquito wafted about lazily in front of my face, looking about as aimless, dazed and confused as my thoughts were. Early the next morning we set out to have a look around Timbuktu. The Tuareg nomads founded Timbuktu in about 1100 AD as a seasonal camp. The city’s name was supposedly derived from “tom”, the Tuareg word for “well”, and “Bouctou”, the woman who tended the well, making up the name Tombouctou or “the well of Bouctou” (English adapted spelling “Timbuktu”). About 35 000 people today live in the city and it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988.

Reading in the Sahara

Reading in the Sahara

Major Alexander Gordon Laing, of the 2nd West India Regiment, was reportedly the first European known to have reached Timbuktu in 1826. He entered Tuareg country in September 1825 where he was joined by a band of them who were heavily armed. After travelling with Laing for six days, the Tuaregs attacked him while he was asleep. Thinking him dead, they packed off into the desert. But Laing was not dead and the following is his account of his injuries: “To begin from the top. I have five sabre cuts on the crown of the head and three on the left temple, all fractures from which much bone has come away; one on my left cheek which fractured the jaw bone and has divided the ear, forming a very unsightly wound; one over the right temple and a dreadful gash on the back of the neck, which slightly scratched the windpipe; a musket ball in the hip, which made its way through my back, slightly grazing the backbone; five sabre cuts on my right arm and hand, three of the fingers broken, the hand cut three-fourths across, and the wrist bones cut through; three cuts on the left arm, the bone of which has been broken but is again uniting; one slight wound on the right leg and two with one dreadful gash on the left.” Three weeks later Laing felt he was sufficiently healed to ride a camel and resumed his journey. His manservant and a shipwright died of the plague and Laing himself was sick for nine days after passing through an infected village. Finally, in August 1826, crippled and disfigured, he rode into Timbuktu after a journey of 2 650 miles across the Sahara. Timbuktu was, however, in a state of anarchy at the time and he was urged by the sultan to leave as soon as possible, which he did. Thirty miles north of the city, on the second day of his return journey, he was again attacked by Tuaregs, who this time beheaded him. Reference (To Timbuktu, a Journey Down the Niger: M Jenkins, 1998).

Mosque Door – The doors to a mosque in Mali are important features and there are separate entrances for men and women.

Mosque Door – The doors to a mosque in Mali are important features and there are separate entrances for men and women.

While very conscious of the wildness of the place, our reception was far warmer! Riding camels to a Tuareg camp, which was in the desert on the outskirts of the town, was an interesting if slightly uncomfortable experience. With the ungainly gait of the camel and the small wooden saddles, after a time one tends to become rather uncomfortable in the most awkward of places.

Riding camels to a Tuareg camp, over the silky dunes and under a perfect night sky, is truly a breathtaking experience. Leaving the vicinity of the town the stars seemed to brighten and the blue-silver sands, patched with scrub, stretched on forever. The monotonous scrunch of camel hooves in sand was only occasionally interrupted by a snort from one of the beasts.

On arriving at the camp, we removed our shoes as is the custom and sat down on carpets and rugs that had been placed on the cool sand. Camel-skin pillows were comfortably scattered about. The desert sand has a wonderful texture; like castor sugar, perfect hourglass sand of the same consistency, ground down by thousands of years of continual restless shifting. After the heat of the day the cool of it was welcome indeed and it felt as if the land itself was sighing with the reprieve it had been granted and the clear cleanness of the evening.

The different focus on life that these people hold, the perspectives of what is important and what is not, and freedom from the usual Western ideological constraints, was refreshing and uplifting, and vastly different to the totalitarian anthill of consumerism, perfection and advertisement that so often is oppressive and mundane urban life. The timeless sands of the Sahara seem to have an enormous propensity to awaken, free and rejuvenate the spirit of those who seek such an experience.

Author sitting in front of the men’s door

Author sitting in front of the men’s door

A traditional dinner dish called meshwe was soon prepared. A sheep was slaughtered and cleaned and immediately prepared for cooking. It was then stuffed with couscous (millet). When the meat is ready to be eaten one basically hacks off the piece of choice. After eating to one’s heart’s content the camp servant prepares tea. Malian tea is strong stuff and it is served in a small glass with plenty of sugar. It holds a heady caffeine buzz for the unaccustomed. It’s important culturally, to complete the cycle of tea drinking as the tea is always served in batches of three. Each batch takes about 20 minutes to prepare and is sweetened differently to represent love, life and death, I think it was. The preparation process also allows for an important time for after-dinner conversation and, given the isolation of the nomadic lifestyle, serves as an important form of entertainment. Stories of their camel caravans and the salt mines of Taudeni to the north abounded.

Taudeni was a prison mine for many years and it had no walls as any attempt at escape would end in certain death. Food had to be brought in, and one well with poor, oily and salty water is all it has. People were often sent there to die.

“Numbers alone (as envious as we may be of them) don’t maketh the man, nor the true spirit of the hunter.”

The following morning we rode back to Timbuktu and visited a number of ancient mud mosques and markets. The university and mosque stand like an obelisk of mud surrounded by walls in which are intricate and ornate doors. Evenly spaced wooden poles protrude from the structure. These serve not as reinforcement for the structure but for people to clamber and stand on during an annual festival, during which all usual work stops and the community repairs the mosque with new mud. All mosque spires are adorned with ostrich eggs, which serve as an important fertility symbol, which are brought upriver from far in the south.

It was truly awesome visiting the Timbuktu library (I’m told the oldest in Africa) and seeing 11th century Arabic manuscripts, some of which were embossed with gold leaf. While many of these priceless artefacts are untidily kept in less than ideal facilities, it has been the dry desert climate which has preserved them for hundreds of years.

Malian hunter

Malian hunter

The sand streets of Timbuktu were also interesting but devoid of almost all colour. The buildings are made of the earth and seem to be nothing more than monochromatic undulations of it. Very few tourists were prevalent and a few people in the streets seemed to take exception to our presence by covering their faces and hurrying away. If one had to cite a downside of Timbuktu, it would be the relentless pestering by street merchants. They are far more aggressive than those in the south of the country and often a peaceful moment was interrupted by the standard “Hello my friend, where you from?” On giving an answer a rehearsed reply would sprout forth: If it was America it would be, “Ahhh, America – Pamela Anderson, George Bush” or it was South Africa it was, “Ahhh, South Africa – Bafana Bafana” and so each tourist to the area is drawn in to haggle. Whatever you do, when visiting, do not hold an article to “look at it” because you won’t be able to give it back. I found myself on occasion putting things on the ground and walking away from what I didn’t want to buy.

Sailing on a pinasse (motorised and large pirogue or canoe) at sundown is a marvellous form of experiencing the Niger River. The sun had turned to a glowing ball of fire and was hung low in the late afternoon sky. When one thinks of Timbuktu one immediately thinks of dunes, camel caravans and turban-clad men roaming the Sahara desert, and while there certainly is much of this, the Niger River is not at all what I expected. Certainly not on the scale that was presented. The river is truly the life artery of Mali providing for trade, travel and agriculture.

“Maximise the enjoyment of each experience, whether you’re hunting quail or elephant, or enjoying the hospitality of a culture never before experienced.”

The greenness of the fields on the banks of the Niger is staggering, and the incongruity of the rice paddies and wheat fields with the stark, barren Sahara seemed surreal.

Slabs of rock salt are mined in the north of the country in the desert; it is loaded onto camels and it takes approximately three weeks to reach Timbuktu. From there these slabs of rock salt are loaded onto boats, which take them to ports predominantly in the south. Gold is mined in large quantities and has been for years in the southern area of Mali, and such was the ancient trade of salt from the north and gold from the south. Without the Niger River none of this would have been possible and the face of Mali would be very different today.

No formal “road” links Timbuktu with the rest of Mali and as the Land Cruiser ground on steadily I began to contemplate the challenges that still lay before me and those I had already put behind. If there’s one motto an adventurer in Africa needs to subscribe to it is “IMPROVISE, ADAPT AND OVERCOME” – and always, always, keep a sense of humour! 

1+ 1 = 3

You may well ask what this all has to do with being a hunter? Well, nothing and everything I suppose – depending on how you look at it. If like me you’re a person who feels privileged to be a hunter, thrilled by the adventure, travel and understanding of different people from different cultures who share a common endeavour and passion for the hunt (although they might do it differently), you’ll understand the point I’m driving at. For many of us being a hunter is not just about filling up the freezer; in fact in the bigger picture that has very little to do with it. It’s more about interesting people who often become friends despite language barriers. It’s about colourful cultures, unfamiliar animals and overcoming adversity while travelling through remote areas.

Fishermen on the Niger River at dusk

Fishermen on the Niger River at dusk

The Renaissance men of the 14th to 17th Centuries were people who embraced a variety of intellectual disciplines and gave it all they had, and so it wasn’t unusual to find a brilliant mathematician who was also an inventor and master artist. Leonardo daVinci was an archetypical Renaissance man. So looking at it in this way, I encourage all hunters and especially the younger generations who are just starting out to be Renaissance hunters as it were. By developing a deep appreciation and understanding of hunting practices, and of cultures that have refined those practices over sometimes thousands of years, of the different animals in different areas, this will add a kaleidoscope of dimensions to a hunt and the overall satisfaction of it. Perhaps I shouldn’t be honking on about DaVinci and Renaissance men, but being a hunter and so by definition an adventurer, my take on it all is don’t be bound by convention and make the absolute most of your experiences, no matter how small an event may seem. Take the time to get to know the people you meet and hunt with. If you’re invited to taste their foods don’t just peck at the food, go for it! Immerse yourself in the experience and enjoy yourself; 99.9% of concerns are unfounded and if anything does go wrong that’s what Imodium is for. So be sure to take some with and throw caution to the wind!

Guide and car outside Timbuktu

Guide and car outside Timbuktu

In this way hunting is more than (at the opposite extreme – in fact it isn’t even hunting) banging away from the back of a pickup; it’s a lifestyle, a mindset of appreciation and adventure and it’s a great vehicle for self-development.

Recently Tony Sánchez-Ariño commented, “I must confess that I feel sorry for the new generation of hunters trying to follow in our footsteps in present-day Africa, battered and riddled with problems and scars from top to bottom.” Sadly I must agree, having hunted, worked and travelled throughout Africa. But that’s not to say there still isn’t fabulous adventure to be had out there; it may well just have to be had in a slightly different way.

“Hunting is more than banging away from the back of a pickup; it’s a lifestyle, a mindset of appreciation and adventure and it’s a great vehicle for self-development.”

Timbuktu - Tuareg portrait

Timbuktu – Tuareg portrait

It is bound to be a disappointing fantasy for young hunters to believe that they will be able to hunt in exactly the same manner that people did in decades gone by. But while we might not be fortunate enough to bathe in the champagne of abundances of yesteryear we can still sip, savour and appreciate it. While numbers of animals hunted are undisputedly a measure of fortunate experience it is simply unrealistic to use legendary hunters’ achievements of the past as a yardstick of measurement for one’s own hunting prowess. Numbers alone (as envious as we may be of them) don’t maketh the man, nor the true spirit of the hunter. However humble one’s hunting accolades, rejoice in belonging to such a wonderful fraternity, maximise the enjoyment of each experience, whether you’re hunting quail or elephant, or enjoying the hospitality of a culture never before experienced.

boatI guess what I’m driving at is that for many people hunting is more than the pursuit of an animal; it’s more than getting into a record book or having a trophy to brag about. If hunting is truly in your blood it’s a perspective, a mindset more than anything else. It’s a seeking out in the broadest sense of the word and an appreciation of all the components within the hunter’s realm, the main ones being:

The sensual: When one hunts it means the heightened involvement of sight, smell, touch and emotion – it’s the immersion in an activity that is totally absorbing and instinctive. The biophysical: Appreciating nature in all its varied forms.

The traditional and cultural: Valuing different practices and traditions, from different people and cultures, born through a shared endeavour of the hunt.


I was lucky enough to meet some hunters in Mali and go hunting with them, but that’s a whole other story.



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