Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Road to Timbuktu II

We drive and drive out into the bush, holding onto the seats to keep from lurching forward. Our guide Amadou and our driver smoke and talk, ignoring me and Kate. We don't talk, because we're each glued to a window. An antelope runs by in a blur. The vegetation is sparse. From time to time, we pass boys herding goats, but mostly, there's emptiness.

I am not sure how our driver knows where he is going. There is no longer a road, just flat, rocky expanse, and we seem to be turning left at that shrub and right at that tuft of grasses. There are villages here and there, sometimes an hour apart, in the middle of the flat expanse, where we pull up and stop, so Amadou can go out and pay tribute to the village chief, which seems to be a necessity out here on the edge of the Sahara.

We also stop to greet a camel caravan. Tall Tuaregs wrapped in indigo cloth look down on us from atop their camels. Their headscarves frame stunning eyes that spark with gold and yellow. Richly-detailed hide bags hang from the camels.

"Where are they going?" Kate asks Amadou.

"Oh, they are on the road to Timbuktu," he says.

Kate and I both look at the flat, sandy, undelineated expanse, then at each other.

"The road?" I ask, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes," says Amadou, pointing at the flat, sandy, undelineated expanse.

The caravan moves in the direction of Timbuktu, in a slow but steady plod. I am struck by how well they know the land, and keep their sense of direction. I can't help but feel a thrill that I am just a day's walk away from the fabled Timbuktu, that if I just get out of this Jeep and join the camel caravan, we'll follow a route used for thousands of years to reach the ancient city, using the same form of transport used since ancient times.

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