Day 63: Tombouctou and the Festival au desert

Soutpiel Safari
John & Jenny
Thu 6 Jan 2011 21:23
Day 63: Thursday 6 January, 2011. Hotel de la Paix, Tombouctou, Mali.  N16 46.911  W003 00.837.  Distance driven 54 km
Here it is, the official spelling: Tombouctou!
Here we are at last, in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the Malian desert, in Tombouctou! The Malian Ministry of Tourism are staging the 11th Festival of the Desert to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the independence of Mali. This area has recently been regarded as too dangerous for tourists because of an alleged Al Qaeda of the Maghreb (AQIM) cell somewhere to the northeast of here in the desert. Because of this we had not planned to come here but this is a huge event, attended by the President, and there is a lot of security.  The timing was right for us and it just seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Do you know anyone else who has been to Tombouctou??  Having said that, the rather disturbing news of the day is that there was a bomb attack on the French Embassy in Bamako last night.
We had a lovely night at Tenere where the owner, Abdou, has created a very peaceful haven in the desert, well appointed and beautifully kept. The very sad news was that he is having to close down though lack of tourist business caused by this supposed terrorist threat.  Our feeling is that one is much safer here than driving home at night in Johannesburg, but the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) whose word all the tour companies and insurers take as gospel, fail to access these risks on a realistic basis. 
We set off from Tenere at 0810 and reached the ferry about an hour later.  we were third in line and the chaos and hostility of yesterday's ferry queue had gone.  We had a very peaceful crossing of the Niger River and, on the other side, a 12 km drive into Tombouctou, a sprawling dusty town full of history.
We based ourselves at the Hotel de la Paix, run by a Brit, where we managed to find a mechanic who very quickly fixed our fractured brake pipe.  There is still some air in the system but it works and the car does now stop when the brake is applied.  We can get it bled properly later.  Our Sleeping Camel friends have moved off to the Festival site, where they are sleeping in Berber tents, while we'll stay here for tonight.
We walked out to the festival site among the dunes just before sunset and picked our spot on top of a dune overlooking the main stage. As the sun set about 200 camels paraded past with their drivers all clad in Berber and Toureg robes in a multitude of colours.  What an incredible sight - one could imagine them going on a raid, they looked so fearsome!  Then followed an evening of Malian, African and European music under a cloudless sky with a new moon.  All the time we were accosted by tribesmen selling Toureg jewelry, camel blankets, headscarves, knives and walking sticks.  As the evening wore on we got quite cold and bought a camel blanket to keep warm!  We had been cold in bed these last few nights and missing our big duvet, so the camel blanket will keep is warm there as well.
We didn't leave until nearly midnight and the party was still going strong. An enormous party of government officials arrived about 9pm with a huge police and army escort.  We nearly got mown down walking home but fortunately survived and retreated to our tent, which by this time has a covering of sand all over it.  The sand and dust gets everywhere, in the car, in the tent, in every bodily orifice as well.  We both have hacking coughs from dust irritation and our cloths are stained with dust marks where we perspire!  Another couple of days and we'll be free of it and can have a good clean up.