Tombouctou (Timbuktu)


I didn’t plan to go to Africa, much less to Timbuktu. Is there really such a place? Tony is a massive research hound and has safely taken us to places in the world that have little to no infrastructure for tourism.
After nine months of planning and securing visas for three African countries we set off to the coast of Ghana with the intention of backpacking overland across three countries to the mysterious city known as Timbuktu. We would stop in Burkino Faso to meet and film a new client that was purchasing goods for his import store at a giant market that takes place every two years. This was an inspiration for our trip. I was selling ads into our tourism programs that aired on local channel KBSC TV ch 9.  We met the owner of this store and he explained to us how he imported African products by physically going there once every two years. As we walked out of the store my husband turned to me and said “we are going to Africa!” My response was “You’re crazy, we haven’t traveled enough to go to Africa.”  He won.

What the hell am I doing?

Arriving in Africa for the first time is surreal. The endless mud hut villages looked like something out of a Disney amusement park set up for tourism.
It took 3 weeks for us to travel across three counties, Ghana, Burkino Faso and Mali, moving everyday on some of the most dilapidated forms of transportation I had ever seen.

Just one of our many “Tro Tros” or in Mali referred to as Bush Taxis. This was in the north of Burkina Faso in a border town called Ouahigouya.
Tony thinks this is fun.

Breaking down on the side of the road became the norm. The daily schedule was up at 6am, flag down some sort of transportation, cram into a mini type van or prison looking bus that was chain locked from the outside, zone out for the next 8 to 9 hours while sweating with dust coming through the windows so intensely that a facemask was needed. My escape was listening to Enya on my headphones and staying calm with so many people that there was no shoulder room. It’s called 5 on 5. Seat rows that are meant for three people have five people and the vans do not leave until full.

This was actually a bus, so slightly more comfortable.

Once we arrived in the next, nowhere African, small village that has never seen outsiders, it was time to find a place to stay, food and much needed water. This was sometimes a challenge leaving me with no words to say to my husband, none! “Don’t talk to me until I drink water, shower and eat”  I would tell him. That is how exhausting these overland journeys would be for me. Eat, sleep, repeat.

Two thirds of the way across Ghana in a town called Tamale. The trip was just beginning. Today was an especially hot and dusty day.

After over two weeks of constant travel we made it to Mopti, the final developed town befor jumping off into the Sahara Desert and eventually into Timbuktu.  Our original plan was a Pinasse, a local canoe that would take three days. Upon seeing it we said, No. But travelling on land had it’s own concerns. I love this video below, this is Africa.

Mopti. We really enjoyed our three days here while trying to figure out how to get to Timbuktu, safely. This video shows Mopti.
This would be the river option. 3 days on this pinasse.

This part of the Sahara and especially around Timbuktu is known for having bandits known as the Tuareg. I should insert here that one of Tony’s goals on this trip is to meet a Tuareg family and spend a night in the desert with them. Keep reading to see how that works out. Finding a ride to Timbuktu turned out to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated.  It took three days to find, meet and negotiate our ride. We made a stop at the gas station on the side of the road nowhere just outside of Mopti. 

The best vehicle of our trip. Heading out across the Sahara to Timbuktu.

I decided to use the bathroom, which is a very loose term for walls and a hole shared by all.  Just as expected the floors surrounding the hole were bits of shattered mosaic tiles that were slippery. Unfortunately the hole was not draining properly leaving urine water from wall to wall. I very carefully tiptoed across the floor towards the hole.  This is when I slipped and fell backwards, luckily not hurt, but now covered in urine from head to toe in my newly washed clothing. A few cuss words later I found a hose and rinsed off entirely clothed. This would make Tony laugh, I would have done the same, but the two African men in the front of the car did not appreciate his humor. I slyly and quickly changed in the back of the 4×4.

The road to Timbuktu

It had been a challenging and educational three weeks traveling through west Africa, crossing borders and meeting the beautiful and warm people and now it was time to cross through the open and vast desert fast, really fast!  In order to not be robbed by the bandits, the driver, now in a French speaking country, is driving so fast that my sides were bruised from flying over bumps on the dirt road. This would be another example of my husband not disclosing the danger of traveling to Timbuktu. We made it through the desert and arrived at a river crossing to wait for the next ferry. There were a number of other 4×4’s that had made the journey and who were waiting with us.

We were told there was only one more ferry crossing for the day. If we did not get on we will be sleeping here for the night. Luckily we have a tent and the local Fulani may be able to provide some food.

On the river banks were the nomadic tribe the Fulani. Below are a few pictures of this not often seen group of people. Sadly, as I write this the Fulani are at war with the Dogon, another group of people we had spent about a week with earlier in the trip, but that’s another blog.

We survived and arrived at the accommodations that Tony had researched.  These are very basic accommodations that feel more like a jail house than a place to stay.  Not many visitors to this region so not a lot of options.

We always barricade ourselves into a foreign room while traveling utilizing beer bottles to line the inside of the door and sleep with our important stuff under our pillows in hidden pockets attached to our clothes that Tony’s mom made. I always carry a fake wallet when traveling with day money just in case we run into trouble, but that has never happened. In my experience the world and its people are beautiful and you will always be taken care of. This is why I love to travel.
The next day it was time to venture out into one of the most remote and inhospitable places on earth, Timbuktu. The sky is filled with so much sand that there is no difference between the brown skies and the sand ground, it just runs into each other with little colors.

Standing in Tombouctou looking out over the Sahara

I then understood why the locals wear long robes and turbans. It is one of the harshest places on the planet with sand storms that make it impossible to see or even walk. It is also the home of the first written Quran located in the only museum. It was amazing to see it under glass. 

Some original manuscripts from the Quran. Timbuktu was once the learning center of the Islamic world. It is still considered a requirement to come here on your way to Mecca. Local families to this day have manuscripts buried under their homes, afraid to turn them over to museums in fear they will be destroyed. This is not paranoia. Just a few years after our visit a terrorist group linked to Al Queida took over Timbuktu instilling Sharia law and started destroying Islamic sites, Madersas and the manuscripts they could find.
The above video is a very nice overview of Timbuktu. We almost never hire guides but on this occasion I am very glad we did. We learned so much more about the town in the few hours we spent with him then we would have exploring on our own. We would have plenty of time to wander, we got stuck in Timbuktu for six nights trying to find transport out. Notice the way our guide Kali is dressed. We met him the day before when he was wearing his Tuareg robe and turban. When he learned we would be filming our ‘tour’ he showed up the next day in a Nike T-shirt.
Tony filming 9 months of research and a desire to know the world
One of Timbuktu’s Medersas (Islamic learning center)
All around town there are outdoor ovens for making bread. As our guide said, there are 12 spices of Timbuktu with sand being the twelfth spice. If the food does not have sand, you are not in Timbuktu.
Typical buildings made of limestone. Each brick is carved by hand which you can see in the overview video up above

Day one would turn out to be our quest to get more funds.  Yes, we ran out of money in Timbuktu and needed to get a cash advance on our credit card. We walked across the sand streets to find the only bank.  By this time we had a small group of children following us and three grown Tuareg men wearing blue robes, turbans and make up. They had lighter skin then the Africans we had encountered. The men approached us and wanted to sell us their Timbuktu silver out of their bandannas.  We told them that we were out of money so they followed us into the bank and sat and waited along with the four children that we had collected along the way.  The bank was a nice place with real chairs and air conditioning.  We didn’t mind having to wait, in the first and maybe only, air conditioning of the five week journey.
We eventually exited the bank and back onto the sand streets when the three Tuareg men approached us again and said “would you like to have some tea?” We knew this would develop into us buying their jewelry, but the opportunity to meet these bandits and possibly film was just too exciting to pass up.

Having tea with the Tuaregs in Timbuktu

To our surprise these Tueregs have their own slaves in Timbuktu called the Bellas. The three men showed us into a Bella tent made of sticks and wood in a dome shape with no floor. They kicked out the owner, an old Bella woman that was not happy about that, and told her to fetch us some tea. The five of us settled onto the ground and into a circle for tea and jewelry viewing. This would be some rare footage of a culture that is not used to being exposed.  It was magical and the tea was very special.  Green tea with lots of sugar being poured into tiny ceramic cups from far above making for a show. Tony asked the men to explain how they travel for forty days and forty nights 750 kilometers to the salt beds of Taoudenni to bring back salt for their community and to sell.

We purchased a few pieces of Timbuktu silver and said our goodbyes. The next day one of the men, the one with the most eyeliner, would find us at a spot (a small outside bar camouflaged from the outside so no one can see who is drinking inside) and asks us to buy him a coke (they do not drink) and we kindly declined so he eventually left our table.
In the next few days we would arrange to camp a night away from Timbuktu and further into the desert where the Tueregs have their tents.

Riding a camel into the desert

We stayed the night in our own tent, thankfully because of the dung beetles, and requested a vegetarian meal from our host family, husband, wife and two young boys.

It is always a good idea to travel with a tent through Africa. Breaking down is a daily occurrence and we were very happy to have our own shelter a few nights on this 6 week journey

The food was cooked in a black cauldron over fire. 

These boys had absolutely nothing to play with in the desert. When we arrived by camel, the camel saddles came to the ground and became the best toys. There was not a stick or rock and certainly no books or pencils. But they are happy people.

After our meal, of  I don’t know what, we sat with the husband and wife while the boys climbed into their dome house to bed. Then the jewelry came out, of course.  These Tuaregs, like most Africans that we had met, have their own tribal language, there’s is called Tamasheq, so communicating is a challenge. The four of us adults came up with a way to negotiate prices of jewelry by making dashes in the sand. It is always amazing to find ways to communicate without words.  At one point in negotiations the husband turned to his wife and she must have said more money, so I think she was in charge. In this culture the men cover their faces and the women do not.  The men are actually quite feminine, laughing and playing and touching their male friends.  We carried postcards from our home on the Oregon coast to show people we would meet along the way. Our Tuaraeg hosts had never seen the ocean.

We survived a night with the Tuaregs and it was time for us to go back to Timbuktu, but without communication this resulted in us just sitting on the sand waiting for the camels to be saddled and the men to lead us back to the town.

During this wait I reached into my journal and gifted the men a sheet of iridescent stickers that I had brought for the children and decided not to give to the children once I witnessed the fighting it caused.  The men were in awe of these stickers and it quickly turned into a playful fight as they chased each other in circles for the stickers fully dressed in their indigo robes. 


Once that ended they placed the stickers on a few dung beetles and then on their tobacco pipes that were made out of camel bones. It was an experience I will never forget.

Smoking in the desert with the Tuaregs
Dung beetles. Very happy we had a tent. Sleeping outside would have been magical (we spent a number of nights on top of mud huts over the duration of the trip) but glad to not have beetles crawling over us all night.
The above video is our trip out into the Sahara

Once back in Timbuktu it was Tony’s job to find us water.  There are no obvious stores here to locate water. At this point I quit, cried and was hiding out in the room, loose term for a dirty bed with cement peeling walls with a door. 

We always carry our own bedding including small air mattresses and bug nets. Once the children of the town were aware of us it became a funny game of run away before they catch us and talk our ears off inviting us to have tea with their family with the small English they had been taught.
Another night in our basic accommodations and it was time to find a way out of Timbuktu.  This would also be a challenge. We found a pinasse, a small wooden canoe with a motor, sort of toilet and cooking stove complete with a three person staff to take us and another three European women down the Niger River and back to Mopti. This would be a three day journey in a super small canoe surrounded by hippos in the river and mosques on the shore.

Our chartered Pinnasse. We would travel 12 hours a day for three days.
Sun rising on the Niger river waiting to start the long journey

Below are quite a few shots we took over three days of drifting down the Niger river from Timbuktu to Mopti.

We passed by many small villages and visited a few
The Niger river is used as a main transport between towns
Wood is the only source of fuel for cooking. As the world continues to warm and forests disappear there will someday be a true crisis. Water here too is not easily available with families walking miles everyday for dirty unsanitary water. You can view a video of a village we built a borehole for here and see what their water supply used to be.
One day a sand storm blew in and we had some rough waters
Three long days, but a once in a lifetime experience
One of the local villages we stopped at
One of our meals on the boat. In Africa, everything tastes good
A beautiful mud Mosque on the Niger river

Tony and I would leave the boat and sleep on the shore just off site.

Our tent, all alone on the banks of the Niger river

  The three women on the canoe were not prepared for this journey.  They were without water and sleeping gear making it more difficult for us all.
Being stuck on a canoe for three days made me realize where the term “bored to death” may have come from. It was a slow ride back to well, not exactly civilization, but Mopti.

It would take us one more week to travel, mostly by nice bus, back to the city of Accra and onto our midnight flight back to America.
Next trip to Ghana would be to build our first well. We worked hard to raise $3,000, usually $20 at a time speaking at Rotary meetings and with anybody else that would listen. The first well to our surprise was hand dug, no borehole drill, but that’s another blog.

Music video for the song Timbuktu by Tony Kalhagen

The video above is a music video for a song that Tony wrote about our adventure in Timbuktu. We hope you enjoy it. We Love to share our stories, videos and pictures with you and we do this at no charge. We have also been self employed artists, musicians and filmakers for most of our lives accepting no other means of income. If you enjoy our work please consider following this blog, subscribing to our Youtube channel, liking our facebook and instagram pages and best yet, you may download the song Timbuktu for only .99 cents or the entire album ‘Streets of Paris for $9.99

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About XPLORE FILM and Sip & Stay

The Art of Life

Tony and Terri-Lynn met in 1987 as teenagers. In 1991 they were married.  Tony has been a professional musician his entire life and spent the 90’s touring and releasing albums.  In 2001 the couple left the cities and moved to a small community on the Oregon coast. This is where they fell into television production and film making. In 2004 Makai Ohana Productions was founded and the couple produced advertising and creative content for hundreds of tourism related businesses and government entities in Southern Oregon and Northern California. Realizing the industry was evolving towards the internet they re-branded the business in 2012 to Xplore Film.  This company would now be an international business producing films world wide as well as an NGO in West Africa where the couple provides clean water boreholes, scholarships and even a prosthetic hand project.

In 2018 Tony and Terri-Lynn with their dog Bisque Kitt packed the belongings they could carry on their backs and flew to Spain. They bought a home and planned to spend equal time between the two countries running the business.  Then Covid hit and the world closed.  By 2020 they realized Spain, and specifically Torrevieja was now home.  They bought a sailboat and started to create a life on the Costa Blanca of music, film, events and community.


Music from Xplore Film

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