Timbuktu and the Festival au Desert

Lonely Planet Travel Editor Tom Hall is on a mission to discover 52 of the most awe-inspiring places to visit across the world. This week's delight is the Festival au Desert in Mali.

Festival au Desert

Few names come as loaded with legend as Timbuktu, forever synonymous with distant adventure and the unreachable heart of Africa. It can be a surprise then to find that it really exists. Open up an atlas, preferably an old, dusty one, and you’ll find Timbuktu (or Tomboctou) sitting in the strategic spot it has occupied for centuries, where the Sahara meets the Niger River.

Timbuktu’s legend stemmed from early explorers who provided vivid descriptions of a great centre of learning, trading and riches. Its allure has never really worn off, even though successive generations have reached the town only to find a dusty, desert trading town rather than the Camelot of Africa.

Today’s Timbuktu retains only hints of its former glories. Visitors can still see salt caravans striding into town, medieval mosques and the well-preserved houses stayed in by nineteeth century explorers from Europe. The real adventure remains in getting here in the first place.

Getting to Timbuktu

The most fun way is to take a bus to Mopti, a seven-to-ten hour journey from Bamako. From here you’ll need to either hop on a passing cargo boat or arrange your own charter expedition. The journey will take three days.

Boat is only an option between July and December, when water levels are high enough and the heat is tolerable. Otherwise it’s a long and bumpy shared 4WD journey from Mopti. You can fly to Timbuktu should you really want to. Flights leave several times weekly from Bamako, Mali’s capital, but can be tough to book unless you’re in the country.

Enjoy the Festival au Desert

Maybe Timbuktu just isn’t remote enough. If all this desert scenery has you craving a bit of Malian blues under the stars then the Festival au Desert is for you. This annual celebration of local and world music, inspired by traditional Touareg nomad gatherings, takes place each January near Essakane, 30 miles from Timbuktu.

Transport is generally arranged from Mopti rather than Timbuktu, but you can tie both together on one unforgettable journey around the northeast of Mali. Travel in Mali can be dirt cheap or top-end – somewhere in between can be had for around £35 a day.

Planning your trip to Timbuktu

Online information about Mali is scarce, but Mali Photos will provide a good overview of the destination. See Festival au Desert if you’re tempted by a few nights partying under the stars.

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