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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Mali: Camel Trekking in Timbuktu

Owrah the camel
Owrah, the camel I rode for three days through the scorching sands of the southern Sahara Desert

I don't know why I love camel trekking; it's the most uncomfortable experience this side of Mali's buses, but I thrive on camel treks. Naturally, the first thing Brook and I did on arriving in Timbuktu was to talk to the Tuareg camel trekkers outside our hotel about exploring the Sahara, and we soon settled on a three-night, four-day excursion to the surrounding area. I just can't seem to say no to camels and deserts.

The Sahara of Timbuktu

Orwah the camel, showing the seat the Tuareg use
Yes, this camel seat is as uncomfortable as it looks, especially for men

Timbuktu isn't really in the Sahara, it's in the northern edge of the Sahel, the area of scrubland south of the desert itself. There's a lot of sand around Timbuktu but it doesn't drift into the endless rolling dunes one normally associates with the desert; instead it's dotted with squat trees, olive-green bushes and hardy little plants that look too dry to be alive but which seem to grow quite happily in the sand. More than anything the country around Timbuktu looks like the kind of dune system you'd find behind a beach; it's sandy, but it's also covered in vegetation. I half expected to see the glint of the ocean over the next gentle slope; the sea may be a very, very long way away, but Timbuktu still feels like a run-down seaside town.

A dead camel half buried by the sands of the Sahara
As if you need reminding, the Sahara Desert is harsh and inhospitable, even for those who live here naturally
A Tuareg tent in the Sahara
The Tuareg, the nomadic tribe of the Sahara, live in tents like this, with one whole family to one dome

Base Camp

A camp on the sand by a Tuareg tent
Our bed under the stars at Ibrahim's house; that's Brook asleep on the right

From Timbuktu we rode out into the desert and stopped at Ibrahim's house, where we've set up camp. Ibrahim, his wife, his daughter and his three sons live on a square patch of desert that they've cleared of scrub and surrounded with a makeshift fence of dry, dead wood, made up of thick branches of spiky, thorny desert bush. In the middle of the patch lies the family's tent, a traditional Tuareg tent that's the same colour and shape as an immense turtle, with patterned mats blocking up the sides below the roof; apart from a separate hut for cooking, that's their home. For our three nights out in the desert Brook and I are living on a large plastic mat draped in one corner of the compound, and that's it; we're camping under the stars, for our sins.

A water pump in the desert
The water pump near Ibrahim's house
A snowman in the desert
Proof that it is possible to build a snowman in the sweltering heat of the Sahara Desert; just bring your own
Owrah, Barraka and Abza
Left to right: Owrah, Barraka and Abza