Desert Trolley

I’m no festivalgoer. All that mud, all those drunks. It’s not my bag, not in the hardcore sense, at least. I drove to Oxegen and drove home Saturday night, rather than have my head stepped on in my sleep, or have to brush my teeth with the end of a flagon of Linden Village. But a festival in the Sahara has a certain appeal. Gimme a cotton tent, some rebellious desert nomads, a few hundred camels and toilets with no water and I’m all set.

Sunday Business Post, February 20, 2005

For the smug, self-satisfied world traveller, nothing brings on a smile like a heavily-stamped passport. Above that, the greater goal is stamps that say ‘I’ve been there and back’ on the road less travelled. The trump of all passport stamps must be that inked in the fabled city of Timbuktu.

It’s not exactly a tourist town. Just ask your average holidaymaker to locate Timbuktu on a map and see what happens.

If they don’t question its existence in the first place, they’re likely to spend several minutes scratching their head before giving up. Timbuktu has a name for being out of the way, or, more accurately, so far out of the way that it’s located at the end of the earth. And that’s kind of how it feels.

Timbuktu is on the south-western edge of the Sahara desert, in the West African country of Mali. Early in the year, when the harmattan breeze blows, dust and sand is whipped up into the air, sealing off this ancient town from sound and sunlight. The eerie, shadowless tranquillity that results is most unnerving.

Camel caravans appear out of the haze, laden down with slabs of salt carried for 700 kilometres through the desert. And on January 4, the 4x4s roll in. Timbuktu is then packed with Tuaregs in their traditional robes and turbans, or chech, milling about around a small horde of bewildered western tourists.

The reason for this mini invasion is Essakane’s Festival in the Desert, now in its fifth year. The festival of music and culture was founded to mark the end of the war between the rebellious Tuareg nomads and the Malian government.

Before peace was established, it would have been unthinkable to have Tuareg standing alongside the other Mali ethnic groups, but for three days in January that’s just what happens.

The event has in the past attracted the likes of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Blur’s Damon Albarn.

It has provided a springboard to the world music scene for local musicians such as Malian rebel rockers Tinariwen and the bedrock of Malian blues, Ali Farka Touré.

This year, musicians are gathered from all over Mali, as well as Senegal, Mauritania, Niger and Burkina Faso and even Austria and Canada.

The whole ensemble makes its way 70 kilometres into the sand to Essakane, in what becomes a lethal, weaving motor rally across the dunes.

Three or four hours’ driving brings you to a clump of desiccated trees on the site of the dried-out lake-bed that is Essakane. The stage, the toilet blocks and the conspicuously useless festival ‘gate’ are the only permanent structures for miles around.

Toubabs (white people), Tuaregs and artists alike are accommodated in the most basic of tents, made of either thick cotton or camel skin. As the sandy white campsite behind the trees fills out, it begins to resemble a huge field of cloth limpets.

The groans of camels give way to the beating of drums and the sounds of guitars as evening light fades into darkness.

One of the most glorious things about the Festival in the Desert is the accessibility of the artists. The musicians’ tents are uncordoned, and at various stages during the day, sessions break out as they stretch their musical legs. Visitors are free to sit and listen, and even join in, and impromptu performances can often outmatch the concert for ambience.

But as the sun disappears into the dust and the stars come out, there’s no doubting why everyone is here.

The dunes immediately in front of the stage are packed quickly, and charcoal fires are lit on the sandy hills further back. The temperature plummets, the tourists don expensive synthetic fleeces, and the Festival in the Desert gets under way.

First up are Imarhan, a traditional Tuareg group who set the tone for the whole festival – energetic dance in flowing indigo robes set to the chants and treble-heavy string-based Tuareg tunes.

Imarhan spend nearly an hour and a half warming up, and the crowd waits patiently through the extended soundcheck.

It wouldn’t be tolerated at any other music festival, but everyone here knows that the sound equipment was delayed en route from Mali’s capital, Bamako. It was due to arrive on Tuesday, three days before the festival, but the truck carrying it was involved in an accident and broke down twice along the way.

The crowd knows this is par for the course in Mali. The country ranks fourth from the bottom of the UN’s world development index, and for the novice, lack of infrastructure makes getting around a challenge.

It is hoped that the music festival will generate tourism, which provides money to help development.

Despite the country’s precarious financial situation, Mali is now seen as an example of peace and stability after periods of strife, and the friendliness of the people more than makes up for any inconveniences and delays.

Mopti is the hub of travel in the north of the country, and the journey there from Timbuktu is 360 kilometres by road.

Over half of this journey is along unsurfaced, corrugated red dust, pummelling the passenger’s rear and invariably involving a stop to repair something on the vehicle.

A smoother option is to take a pinasse, one of the large passenger boats that cruise the route along the Niger river, cutting a damp swathe through the aridity that marks Mali in the dry season. It’s a longer journey, but offers an opportunity to stop at some of the villages around the Niger’s inland delta.

Niafunké is the obvious stop for fans of Malian music – Grammy-winning blues guitarist and town mayor Ali Farka Touré plays regular gigs at his hotel. Other stops include the market town of Diréor Konna just north of Mopti, and there are several Fula and Bozo villages surrounding the town.

Life in Mopti itself centres on the harbour and its sprawling market. Salt slabs are landed here from Timbuktu for distribution around the country, and Mopti is also a staging point for tourists arriving at the small airport nearby to make a foray into Dogon country.

This is a popular trekking area, overlooked by an enormous escarpment of rock 150 kilometres long.

Over 30 villages pepper the route, most of which offer lodging of some sort and the opportunity to buy traditional Dogon arts and crafts, cotton and wood carvings. Nestled under the cliffs of the Bandiagara escarpment are pygmy villages, their tiny houses and grain silos long since deserted.

A day trip away from Mopti is the town of Djenné, whose 13th-century Grand Mosque is the largest mud structure in the world. The mosque is packed with thousands of worshippers every Friday.

Most of the buildings in Mali are made of mud brick, with a top-up layer added to their exteriors once a year before the rains that wear them begin in May.

At the festival the young Malian guitar virtuoso Baba Salah has whipped the crowd into a ululating frenzy. His Tuareg fans pogo wildly, shoulder-to-shoulder with frozen backpackers.

He was preceded on stage by Hubert von Goisern, an Austrian yodeller, and a powerful female vocalist from Timbuktu, Khaira Arby.

Attendance was down in 2005, and those who were here in years gone by lamented its demise. For first timers, however, this remains a spectacle unlike any other, and the experience of camping in the Saharan suburbs, coupled with the cultural melée of camel races and dance spectaculars, overshadows any shortcomings.

Desert Blues are the last Malian act on stage, with the biggest names of the show in a flowing choreographed showcase. Afel Boccoum, Habib Koité and Tartit put on a fantastic performance to bring everything to a massive closing climax.

By 6am, the camp was almost deserted, and the desert race played itself out in reverse. Apart from the few Tuareg and their camels who traverse the area year-round, the lakebed of Essakane will lie empty for another year.

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