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Suzuki’s new Swift hatch and sedan in SA

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Welcome to nowhere!

2006-06-08 09:50

Where to now? - members of the Timbuktu-Table Mountain Expedition in the Sahara.

SENGAL: Dakar - Kaolack - Tambacounda - Kidira MALI: Diboli - Kayes - Diema - Didiena - Kati - Bamako - Bamako - Segoué - San - Djenne - Mopti - Douentza - Timbuktu!

We finally made it to Timbuktu! Like plenty of 18th Century Western explorers, we got hopelessly lost along the way, but unlike many of them, who were either assassinated or succumbed to disease, we survived to tell the tale.

From Djenne we stayed on excellent roads to Mopti on the Niger River, Mali's most important port, all produce travelling north and south goes through Mopti, which is also known as the Venice of Mali, although I'm not sure too many Venetians would agree.

One bush camp later we arrived at Douentza, a gateway town to Timbuktu just 225km away.

We'd initially planned another route that followed the river, but after rebel activity in the area we'd been warned to stick to the main road.

Well, we tried. Our guide, Mohamman 5, was still with us, and he pointed out the unmarked road out of Douentza that would lead us to the world's most mysterious city.

Though the mystery was about to deepen. We started out hopefully on relatively good dirt, passing through Tuareg and Fulani villages, Goose even had a ride on a camel.

But an hour or so later the GPS showed we were heading west instead of north. It was around this time that Mohamman 5, who'd been insisting we were on the right route as "theres only one road to Timbuktu", volunteered that he'd actually never driven to Timbuktu at all.

As the convoy of Fortuner's and Land Cruisers ground to a halt, a robed and turbaned man and woman on a camel emerged out of the dunes. We're not sure who was more surprised. However, they gave us directions and we set off into the desert, following a vague camel path that gave our vehicles their first taste of serious off-road driving, and our first puncture from a two-inch long thorn.

We were far off the beaten track, two goatherds ran for the dunes when they caught sight of us, and another woman got such a fright when we rolled past that she ran and hid behind a bush. With relief we finally found the right road three and a half-hours later, but worse was to come.

This road is a direct route, but it's a dreadful gravel track, so badly corrugated it can be hugely damaging to suspensions and accessories. It was mostly easier (although slower) to go off the road into the desert, which increased the risk of fierce thorns puncturing our tyres.

Our speed dropped to between 30Km/h and 50Km/h and, thanks also to our extremely meandering route, what should have been a four and a half hour drive turned into a 10-hour marathon.

But we were elated to finally arrive at the northernmost point on our route, Timbuktu, a town shrouded in myth and mystery, which so many people don't even believe exists. Well it does, and we have the photos to prove it.

After crossing the river on a ferry, we sped off through the town into the dunes where the governor of Timbuktu and a number of local dignitaries welcomed us with a dinner under the stars, spread out on carpets on the sand.

On a visit some years ago, President Thabo Mbeki was fascinated by the wealth of knowledge contained in the 25 000 ancient manuscripts, some of which date to the 12th Century, being housed at the Ahmed Baba Institute in Timbuktu.

As part of the African Renaissance programme, he committed Nepad funds to create the South Africa-Mali Project, which will build a proper library to house these African treasures. Carmaker Toyota has pledged a brand-new Land Cruise pick-up to the project as well.

The next morning, as part of our tour of the city, we visited the site of the new library (construction of which starts in two weeks), as well as the Ahmed Baba Institute, where you can view the manuscripts and watch as the team (many of whom have visited Pretoria for training) scans, catalogues and restores them.

It was humbling to see these manuscripts, some illuminated in gold, which highlight the culture of scholarship that existed in Africa centuries ago.

Adelle Horler and Geoff Dalglish

Visit the Toyota Timbuktu Table Mountain Web Log for updates and photos at http://blogspace.mweb.co.za

Catch the television series on this expedition on SABC TV3 on Sundays, starting on September 3 at 5:30pm.

With thanks to our sponsors Toyota South Africa, Megaworld, African Outback Products, Pertec, Garmin, MWEB @ Home - iPass, African Stuff, Toshiba and DataShuttle. Thanks also to CFAO Toyota dealerships in Senegal and Mali for their enthusiastic assistance.


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