Executing A Visit To Timbuktu — Mali Part 1

Have you ever wondered where Timbuktu is? Of if you’re a more adventurous type like me, have have you wanted to visit?

Well, Timbuktu is long past its golden age when it was a center for learning and culture in in the Mali (😉) Empire. And in its present state, it is surrounded by danger and quite difficult to visit.

But I pulled off a visit to this city of mystery, and now is your chance to see what’s it like and to understand the logistics involved in getting there.

And as a bonus, you’ll get to check out the Venice of Mali. Let’s get ready to board some flights… or boats?? 🤔

Getting to Mali

At the beginning of March, I headed to Mali, a country in West Africa that is the eighth-largest on the continent.

My visa to Mali

I was supposed to take my last group tour (more or less) in Mali, and it would only last for a couple of days because as I mentioned last time, I don’t love group tours. In Mali, I planned to visit Timbuktu, which is still kind of a dangerous area and is practically impossible to reach overland. However, you can take a charter flight with a group for 25,000 euros, so if you have a group of 16 people, it is easy enough to finance. 💸

I booked the trip with Lupine Tours, with whom I visited Yemen, as well as many African countries, such as Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, and the Central African Republic. Some people just came to Timbuktu for the day, but I took an additional three-day extension with some people from the tour group to visit some other destinations in Mali. I flew first from Germany to Paris, then I caught an economy flight to Bamako, the capital of Mali.

Aboard my flight from Paris to Bamako in Premium Economy class

It’s quite difficult at the moment to get to Mali because it’s sanctioned by The Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). There was a coup d’etat in Mali in May of 2021 led by the former Vice President, so all of the neighboring countries sanctioned Mali and shut down their borders as a response. There are no flights to Mali within Africa, which makes it difficult to fly between there and any other African country. France also sanctioned Mali in the beginning but has since ended its sanctions, so flights from Paris were luckily available. Had there not been a flight from Paris, I would have had to take a long flight from Istanbul or somewhere else.

I arrived in Mali and got a visa on arrival, which was easy enough. There was an older German guy on the same flight who I had already met in Paris during our long time waiting there. He knew of me through one of my clients, so we talked a lot about our situations and became friends during the trip. It was nice to have this German guy with me along the way.

Welcome to Mali, my 174th country 🇲🇱

We met with the other people who would be in our group at the hotel, and all went out for dinner together pretty late in the evening. Then we went back to the hotel and slept because the next morning we would wake up early to begin our tour of Timbuktu.

Late night dinner time

From Here to Timbuktu

As I said, we flew to Timbuktu on a privately chartered plane. We planned to go not only to Timbuktu but also to Gao, which is still considered insecure. The French and German armies have many operations there, although they have some in Timbuktu as well. However, Gao is still very subject to Islamic extremist attacks, so it was still considered to be too insecure when we were there, and on the previous trips before ours. Instead, we had time to visit another city in Mali, so we decided to go to Mopti, which is a safe enough town to visit. It’s quite hard to get there because you have to pass through some dangerous areas, so we just went to Mopti airport and flew there after Timbuktu. We took a quick drive through Mopti, visited some places there, and then returned.

The private jet we took to Timbuktu, to avoid any superfluous beheadings 💀

It was almost a two-hour flight from Bamako to Timbuktu on a little chartered jet. It was quite cramped, but it was okay. We couldn’t see much of the landscape because during the summertime there’s a lot of dust from the Sahara blown over Mali, so it’s very dusty and foggy, and you can’t enjoy the view. After a relatively short flight, we touched down at Timbuktu airport.

Danger All-Around

There were quite a few army planes and helicopters and a lot of military sitting around when we arrived in Timbuktu. Some people from our group were acting stupid by taking pictures of them. The military got very angry and wanted to detain these people, but they apologized and promised not to take any more pictures. Our escort waited for us among many soldiers at the airport. We had an army of about 20 soldiers escorting us through the streets of Timbuktu.

Soldiers leading us down the streets of old Timbuktu

So, off we went in armored Jeeps with all the soldiers behind us. We passed a few checkpoints, then we suddenly found ourselves in the old streets of Timbuktu. We went to see the old mosque of Timbuktu, built in 1327, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The ancient mud mosque of Timbuktu

We went to the old library, which is famous for having some ancient Qurans and a lot of calligraphy. We visited some streets and went to some local houses to see how the people of Timbuktu live.

A local kid standing in front of his home

We went to a Tuareg camp, which is in a dangerous area on the outskirts of the city. We were just allowed to stay there for five minutes before we were told by the soldiers that we had to leave before something bad happened.

Apparently, we were only safe because our guide, a nice guy who spoke English, was from the Tuareg tribe and he could guarantee our safety as long as he was with us. It was just like a camp on the outskirts of town, where they did some singing and dancing for us, and we got to see how they live.

All dressed up in Tuareg garb

Then we went to the museum in Timbuktu where they store many old Qurans and similar items. They were interesting to check out, but there was not really all that much to see or do there.

The Municipal Museum of Timbuktu, also known as… something I can’t pronounce 😅

We had a nice lunch in Timbuktu after seeing some of the buildings and wandering around the streets for a while.

The local children were excited to see tourists again after a long time.

We saw some of the typical mud architecture that they have there. Then we went back to the airport, happy then nothing had happened and that no one had tried to attack us.

The old university of Timbuktu was once raided by Morrocans who trafficked professors to teach at their own university back in Marrakesh.

Moving to Mopti

Next, we flew to Mopti. It took about an hour, as it was halfway back in the same direction that we had come from. The Mopti airport is a bit out of town. We had to drive about 15 kilometers from the airport to Mopti, which is called “the Venice of Mali” because during the rainy season it’s like an island that is only reachable over certain dams.

Local boats lined up and ready to go in Mopti

It was the dry season when we went, so there wasn’t much water around. During the dry season, the Niger and Delta Rivers just look like normal rivers, while during the rainy season they look more like lakes.

The crowded shores of Mopti

We drove over the river with low water, which was very dirty and filled with lots of fisher boats. We took one of the boats along the river and saw Mopti from the outside.

View of Mopti from the water

We saw the mosque of Mopti, which was a pretty big mosque made from mudbrick. We climbed to the top of a neighbor’s roof to spot the mosque because we weren’t allowed to enter there.

The old mosque of Mopti

We walked a bit around Mopti and saw a ton of tiny fish on sale that smelled absolutely terrible at the local fish market. We took a little boat ride for around a kilometer on the Niger River at the confluence of the Bani River.

The fish market. I can almost smell this photo 🤢

Then we went back to land and drove back to the airport where we took a flight back to Bamako.

Back in Bamako

In Bamako, we stayed at our hotel in the evening and had dinner there because half of the group was already leaving that night or the next night — the people who only came for one day to visit Timbuktu.

It was a great experience, although I’d hoped that there would be more traditional things to see there. There are only a couple of mosques, libraries, and traditional mud architecture to see.

The architecture was interesting but there wasn’t all that much else to see.

It’s very difficult to visit Timbuktu independently because there’s so much security. However, it is possible to visit by boat from Mopti, which is often the starting point for trips along the Niger River. Still, it’s like three nights on the little boat and you have to hide sometimes so that the Islamic extremists won’t catch you until you arrive in Timbuktu, so the flight was definitely the much easier option.

Several nights on a tiny boat is not my idea of a good time.

Mopti is apparently safe to visit, but not to drive there overland, so the next three days we drove overland, but we couldn’t really get to Mopti because it was too unsafe. However, we were able to go to another town near Mopti called Djenné, which is only around 30 kilometers away. We were able to drive there relatively safely, but the area between Djenné and Mopti is dangerous, so we could just fly in, but that’s what we did.

A sneak peak at Djenné, which I’ll write more about next time

We spent the next three days driving. We drove to Segoukoro, Ségou, Djenné, San, and Kaï, which is in the southwest of Mali. It’s very flat in Western mali with no river, but some nice rock formations and so on. So the next couple of days were filled with lots of driving.

On the road to visit lesser-known and less secure parts of Mali

Check in again next time to read about the rest of my trip, exploring the lesser-known cities and towns of war-torn Mali.