Timbuktu, Mali * November 21, 2008
The name is synonymous with remoteness and mystery and enigma and the ends of the earth. It looms large in the human imagination as the most distant point on the planet, though many Westerners could not tell you exactly where Timbuktu is supposed to be … or even whether it actually exists.
My mother didn’t believe that Timbuktu was real. “Oh, there’s no such place,” she told me as I prepared to set off on my motorbike journey through Africa. A childhood friend, too, thought that Timbuktu was only a myth – a faraway Shangri La that you heard about back in elementary school.
Timbuktu is a real place. It’s a poor, dusty, unremarkable town of mud-brick buildings and wooden shacks and about 32,000 people in central Mali, near the large and sustaining Niger River. It was settled in the 11th century by Tuareg nomads and is said to derive its lyrical name from an old woman called Tomboutou, “the woman with the large belly button,” or so I read in my Rough Guide to West Africa.
In subsequent centuries, Timbuktu (or Tombouctou, to use the proper spelling) grew to be a fabulously wealthy city for trading gold and other commodities, where salt caravans from the desert north met merchants from sub-Saharan Africa to the south. It wasn’t until the 19th century that European explorers reached the fabled city.
Now it was our turn. No motorbike adventure on the western side of Africa would be complete without a ride to Timbuktu. For months, the name had captivated my imagination – perhaps the name that most singularly defined this Africa ride.
Geoff was similarly amped. He had already been to Kathmandu, in Nepal, and soon he would be able to say that he had been to Timbuktu and Kathmandu. The names alone, both a rhythmic three syllables and the most famously exotic on earth, were compelling in and of themselves.
We packed up the bikes for an 8:30 a.m. departure from Douentza, a small outpost 140 miles south of Timbuktu. A day earlier in Sevare, I had swapped out my tires, replacing the worn Avon Gripsters I’d installed about 7000 miles earlier with knobby Continental TKC 80s that I had lugged along like balls and chain since Toronto. We aired our tires down to about 15 psi for better purchase on soft sand.
Chains and clutch cables were lubed and ready to roll. We each packed four 1.5 liter bottles of water and bread and fruit for what we figured to be at least a five-hour ride on a challenging piste. Geoff took a break from his packing and came over to me with a big winning smile and pumped my hand.
“Dude,” he said, “we’re going to Timbuktu!”
Video: Sandy Piste to Timbuktu
I have some fishtailing fun on the sandy piste to Timbuktu.
The allure of Timbuktu is enhanced by its inaccessibility. To get here, the adventure rider has a choice of four routes – through Lere from the southwest (with four ferry crossings and rumors of banditry), from Gao to the east or through Nema in Mauritania (both long and sandy and little traveled tracks), or from Douentza. Our research told us Douentza would be the easiest route – but easy is a relative term.
A pair of older Belgian women at Auberge Gouma in Douentza had traveled by 4x4 from Timbuktu a day earlier. They watched with a mixture of admiration and concern as we packed up the motorbikes for our ride north. “Good luck,” one of the women told me. “You’ll need it -- the road is very difficult.”
Other travelers and locals had corroborated that. The evening before our departure, over beers at Auberge Gouma, a 64-year-old South African named Peter Short told us what we could expect. A consultant for the GPS mapping firm TeleAtlas, Peter is also an accomplished adventure rider.
In fact, Peter told me, he nearly succeeded in becoming the first man in the world to complete a ride of more than 1,000 miles in 24 hours on dirt roads for the Iron Butt Association of endurance riders (foiled at the end by a bad starter on his BMW 650 Dakar). I took what he had to say seriously.
The road would be heavily corrugated with plenty of sand, Peter said. And roadwork was under way north of the halfway point to smooth out corrugations, he reported. The material of choice to improve this sandy and corrugated road was – sand. “That might be tough for you guys,” Peter told me. “They don’t exactly have motorbike riders in mind in working on that road.”
The scenery at the beginning of this long piste was dramatic. Douentza is nestled beneath towering rock spires and plateaued mesas of the Gandamia Massif. The natural sight was stunning. Tuareg nomads dressed in headscarves and colorful, conical hats made of thatch parted their herds of cattle and goats for the passing adventure bikes
The morning was perfect. The temperature was a moderate 84 F and the African sun was lasciviously bright. For the first time, I wore a pair of goggles that I had bought almost as an afterthought at Wal-Mart a few days before I left, to replace a pair of Scott motorbike goggles that I had never liked and which were falling apart. The amber lenses on these new goggles rendered everything in an otherworldly golden hue. The fit inside my full-face helmet was ideal.
The first 20 miles of so of the piste was easy. Care was required over small bridges, as 90-degree concrete edges of the irregular construction could at speed puncture our inner tubes, particularly with our tires aired down to about 15 psi. Otherwise, I ran at 45 and 50 mph in third gear, standing on the pegs and choosing lines and dodging rocks and steering with my feet and happily hitting the throttle.
Starting out to Timbuktu, I recalled riding a canyon outside of Creel, Mexico, in 2004 as part of a Horizons Unlimited gathering of adventure riders. There I was startled to be passed by a pair of guys on KTMs. They stood tall and forward on their pegs like Superman in flight and tore past me at 50 mph, while I pottered along on my heavily loaded Kawasaki KLR. I thought, a bit disheartened, I’ll never be able to ride like that.
Now I was standing tall and forward on the pegs and tearing along at 50 mph. I had learned from others and taught myself. An offroad ride in May 2008 through the Black Rock Desert in northwestern Nevada with a group of northern California riders who call themselves the MotoLosers had taught me some valuable lessons about riding sandy and challenging terrain.
I felt good about my steadily improving offroad riding skills. Even though I’d gotten my first motorcycle at age 16, I’d not begun riding dirt until 2004, when I set off through Mexico for South America. I was 43 at the time, and, as with language, offroad riding is more difficult to learn in later years than it is in childhood and adolescence.
The DR650 ran lean and mean, at least compared to my old Kawasaki KLR, and I delighted in nailing the throttle and feeling the punch from the rejetted carburetor and 14-tooth sprocket and hoped that I sprayed Geoff with some rocks and sand, just for the fun of it. And now another piece of motorbike equipment I’d installed came into play – a steering damper.
I hadn’t planned on outfitting the Suzuki with a steering damper until I met an ex-Marine named John in Wyoming. I was on my way to Toronto and my flight to Lisbon, and John was riding the Continental Divide on a KTM 640. The first thing he pointed out to me about his bike was the steering damper.
“I’ll never ride offroad without one again,” he told me. ”This thing is awesome – feel it.”
Installed around the steering mechanism, this hydraulic device dampens the tendency of the front tire to move left or right, instead making it difficult to turn. On John’s bike, I had to exert slightly to even move his handlebars. Intrigued, I called up Jeff of ProCycle, a parts distributor in Oregon. He sells a damper for the DR650 made by a company called W.E.R., and I bought one.
Fitting a W.E.R. damper to a DR650 is not easy. It’s not made expressly for the DR650, despite what W.E.R. says, but it can be fitted. I had it welded to the frame with the assistance of Terry Fox, the affable and helpful owner of Fox Power Sports in Herkimer, N.Y. Then I needed to build my own bracket to elevate the headlight and cowl about an inch to accommodate the damper, as well as cut out part of the cowl.
And I found that unlike John’s damper, the W.E.R. device does not dampen immediately. Even on full, you could swivel the handlebars back and forth effortlessly. Thinking I might have a lemon, I called up W.E.R. and was told that their model is impact-activated. That makes it difficult to assess how effective it is, but for you DR geeks, I’ll say this – it definitely seemed to help, and it definitely can’t hurt.
The soft and heavy sand began about 25 miles north of Douentza. The sand exists in large pockets, or ponds. You could run the hard pack and corrugated piste and spot the sand pond ahead by maybe 50 yards, just as Peter Short had reported. “For the most part, you’ll be able to see the sand,” he told me.
You slow and gear down to third or second and choose a line that that appears to have the shallowest sand. You keep your weight as far back as possible to mitigate the tendency of the front tire to bury itself in the soft stuff and dump the bike. Hit the sand at about 30 to 33 mph and gun on through. The front tire skitters back and forth, and if you gun the bike the rear will reward you with a little fishtail.
It was all great fun, and I found myself relishing the sand, eager to hit the next pond.
The sand in the second quarter of the ride was occasional. The corrugation was constant. Thump-thump-thump-thump-thump! As with sand, the throttle is your friend when riding corrugation. At somewhere around 40 or 45 mph, the bike begins to skim over the top of the ridges and minimizes the constant pounding. The farther north we rode, however, the deeper and more frequent the sand ponds became, and that presented a small dilemma.
I’d found my sweet spot for nailing a sand pond in a high second gear at about 33 mph. Several times, running the corrugation in third at 40 or 45 mph, I’d hit a large sand pond at that speed. Ahem. All of a sudden the bike would do something crazy, the front end career to one side or another in the softness while the back end fishtailed.
The only way through is more throttle and more nerve, so that upon exit you’d be up to 50 mph or so. At that speed, my control of the bike felt diminished.
The terrain was slightly undulant, and we soon discovered that when cresting a hill, a large pocket of deep sand would often await on the other, downhill side. I realized that I had never before run a sandy descent, but there would be no opportunity to stop and analyze the physics of the situation. Trying to stop, or even slow, in soft sand means a dumped bike.
The throttle is your friend. All offroad riders know that, and now I recalled the mantra being repeated in an email I’d received a few weeks earlier from my friend Martin Clarkson of San Francisco, a Brit who’d ridden Africa a few years earlier and helped me out with some valuable tips and intel.
I decided to endure the corrugations and keep the bike in a high second gear. That gearing delivered better throttle response than a low third gear. Peter Short and I had discussed exactly this technique the night before. He told me, “I’ve seen too many guys go down hitting a soft patch at 40 or 45 mph.” If you hit a soft patch at that speed and need to accelerate further, then it could become speed too fast for conditions, at least for my skill.
I recalled, too, a concept I came up with riding offroad in Bolivia. I call it the Collarbone Quotient. It’s sort of an offroad motorcycling equation that boils down to speed vs. conditions divided by rider skill multiplied by fatigue divided by two-thirds of the weight of your gear equals the likelihood of a broken collarbone.
Then multiply again by the square root of how badly it would suck to bust a collarbone in a Third World country like Mali in the middle of a six-month ride to South Africa.
Geoff rode more aggressively through the double-whammy of corrugation and sand ponds. He does everything aggressively. He even eats aggressively. I had watched incredulously back in Ouarzazate, Morocco, as he devoured a breakfast omelette in approximately four bites and 30 seconds.
With him in front and out of sight, I stopped several times for a rest, photos, water, and to enjoy the scenery that I could scarcely see while riding, what with one’s laser focus on the 50 yards of piste ahead. The quiet was sublime. The landscape had changed by turns, a yellow and then orange sand and sparse acacia trees and low bushes and pale green foliation across the land, like peach fuzz on a teenager’s face, and the low and gently rolling hills sprawled out on all sides.
And the road. I picked up handfuls of its fine, soft sand and studied the grains and let it flow, sun-baked and warm, through my fingers. I looked north to the horizon, at the road snaking artistically across this marvelous terrain. I felt like an extremely fortunate man and I gave my thanks.
And I slapped myself to be sure that I was indeed on this challenging piste, on this unforgettable day -- the road to Timbuktu.
I found Geoff waiting for me in the shade of an acacia tree at 12:30 p.m. We were a little beyond the halfway point, several miles north of the only settlement of consequence on the road, a tiny village called Bambara Maoundé. My GPS showed about 60 miles left to Timbuktu.
I said, “Damn, that is hard work!” It was. The concentration required is ceaseless. The mental energy and focus and physical exertion required to ride a sandy and corrugated piste like this is considerable.
Geoff was feeling it, too. “What I could really use is a nap,” he said.
I had been standing on the pegs for most of the 70 miles here, and now my knees felt as if they had nails in them from the sides. I found that the pressure of my knees against the fuel tank had torn away large sections of the tough, protective plastic adhesive I’d affixed to the tank. My wrists, arms, shoulders, back, and legs were all tingly and numb from the exertion. My brain was running on one cylinder.
I sat down in the shade with a bottle of water and a tasty baguette and relished a half-hour break. Soon enough, we were back on the road and encountered the construction crews that Peter Short had reported. And indeed, sand was the material of choice. Huge, deep pockets of the soft stuff, adjacent to piles of harder dirt that the men had deposited.
Later, the sand and dirt would be smoothed out by a grader, and more evenly distributed by virtue of four-wheeled traffic. But now, the huge sand pockets sat cruelly in front of my passage to Timbuktu. These ponds were far deeper and much longer than the natural sand pockets I had ridden in the first half of the day, and they stretched dispiritingly ahead as far as I could see.
I realized that I was awfully tired. The lunch break had not rejuvenated me at all, but left sleepy and exhausted. The sun beat down, broiling me inside my black First Gear riding jacket, over my motocross armor. I was damp with perspiration from head to toe.
I found myself cursing this roadwork as I dialed up the energy to hit a long, deep stretch at 33 mph or so. Riding these man-made piles was now far more taxing than natural sand, and I stopped a few times almost in a hope that the roadwork would just go away.
In some sections, it was instead a hellride. Argh! This sand SUCKS! My exhaustion was now extreme. From his seat in a 4x4, Peter Short had underestimated the difficulty that these man-laid sand ponds would present to a fatigued rider. He had noted the construction work almost as an afterthought, when in fact in my enervated state it was by far the most difficult stretch of the ride.
Finally, it occurred to me that paddling through some of these deep and massive ponds at 5 mph would be a much more enjoyable way to spend the latter part of the afternoon, and a few times I did exactly that. The DR no longer felt lean and mean. I no longer felt strong. The DR felt like an overloaded mule, and I felt humbled and dog-tired and older than my 47 years and a long way from Timbuktu.
In these challenging conditions, the GPS and odometer are your friends. They tell you how far it is to your destination. You watch them hopefully, lovingly, and celebrate the progress of another two miles, another two miles, another two miles … and the milestones of 45 miles to go, 40 miles to go, 35 miles to go, 30 miles to go. Push on. Progress is being made.
Finally, after some 20 miles of the roadwork, I entered sections in which a grader had smoothed out the sand. The sand, mixed with dirt, lay two or three inches deep across the road. Soon enough, I became convinced that I would no longer encounter deep and massive man-laid sand piles, and dialed up my speed to 40 or so mph.
The bike danced back and forth, loose and squirrelly, but so long as I could be sure no huge sand ponds lay ahead, I could relax a bit and let it ride. Now I was more tired than ever, bitterly exhausted even, but told myself to just bang it on and rip ahead. I thought of a twist to the most famous line in the film Dr. Strangelove: Learn to stop worrying and love the sand.
And I did. The day and the sand turned fun, or at least tolerable, once more.
The GPS clicked down. And then I saw water … the southerly section of the Niger River Delta, an amazingly massive artery that courses through this southern lip of the Sahara. I was getting close to the ferry that would take us across the Niger.
And here the road had progressively less sand. It was more of a hard pack, even with sections of ancient bitumen. I got back to the 50 mph speed I had run in the morning and let my concentration relax. I even sat down on the bike, which felt completely bizarre after hours of standing on the pegs, as if I was sitting on the ground.
Geoff was waiting for me at the ferry. He said, “I was wondering if you were all right – it’s been a while.” I just looked at him.
Later, we sat for drinks at Hotel Colombe in Timbuktu and a post-mortem analysis on the ride. Geoff told me he had run the full 60-mile stretch from our lunch break to the ferry with just one stop. I had stopped, what – five or six times? Seven times?
“I was running at 50 mph or so, a lot of it,” he said. “I knew it was reckless and even dangerous, but …wow.” His smile was as big and bright as Hollywood.
“I had a couple of heart-thumpers,” he went on. “Once I ran the bike ran off the road and hit a bush, another time one pocket was deeper and longer than I figured. The back-end went into a big-time fishtail. I was probably going too fast but I didn’t really have a choice – just hit it harder. I said, Well, if I do crash it’s going to be quite spectacular.”
I told him the first part of the ride had left me deeply fatigued, but most of it I had run in a high second gear at 35 mph, except for paddling through a few huge ponds of construction sand late in the day. I brought up Peter Short’s observation that hitting deep sand at 45 mph was a spill waiting to happen. Yeah, Geoff said. He saw the wisdom in it, but wisdom is not necessarily as much fun as the hellbent-for-leather approach he had chosen.
I said, “It’s like I told Migo when we got into Casablanca. I told him when I’m riding in urban traffic like this it’s damn fun, white-knuckle adrenaline, and I love it,” I told Geoff. “But if you asked me if I’d like to go out and ride some heavy urban Third World traffic, I’d say, naaaaah.
“Same thing with sand,” I went on. “When I’m doing it, I love it … well, except for that construction shit, being as tired as I was. But you ask me if I want to go ride some sand on a big loaded bike, I’d say, naaaah.”
I wandered about Timbuktu. It’s an unremarkable place, with few vestiges of its grand past evident. All of its streets are sand, except for a main paved circular thoroughfare. Lizards skittered about the mud-brick walls throughout town. Dozens of kids and would-be tour guides approached me and every other tourist walking about; no Timbuktu stickers for our motorbikes were to be found. At a restaurant called Amanar, we made the acquaintance of a 52-year-old Scottish postman named Mick, who, like Geoff, could now say he had been to both Timbuktu and Kathmandu.
We awoke the morning after our ride here, both sore and tired and achy. I felt as if I had played in an NFL game. We lingered another day, recuperating and passing the time, and set off at a little after 8 a.m. By 9:15, we had crossed the Niger on the $2 USD ferry and hit the 130-mile piste back to Douentza.
I felt fresh and strong once more. The DR felt lean and mean. Riding sand is far, far more enjoyable in the morning, and I attacked the deep ponds with gusto. My difficulties on road here late in the day, I realized, were strictly due to fatigue.
Now I found myself aiming for the deepest sections of the sand ponds, just for the fun of it. The bike danced and fishtailed and I hit the throttle with a huge grin on my face, feeling like a cowboy on a bucking bronco. My speed was up a few miles an hour from two days earlier. Never once did I feel like a crash was imminent.
Knowing what lay ahead helped, too. I kept my pace even and strong and by the time I reached Douentza, my satisfaction far outweighed my nominal fatigue.
As for Geoff, he attacked the road as a race. He had a lot on his mind with some issues involving a woman. He was wound tight and needed to blow off some steam and frustrations. I found him waiting for me on the street in Douentza at 1:45 p.m., chewing on chunks of greasy mutton from a street vendor with a wicked grin.
“Three hours and 20 minutes!” he declared. (My own passage took 4 hours, 30 minutes, including five stops). “Dude, I was hauling ass. I passed that truck of French tourists doing like 75 miles an hour. I was having a freaking hoot!”
And, he got around to saying, he’d taken a spill. He was hammering through a long stretch of deep sand a bit off the main track and eased off the throttle too soon, only 20 yards maybe from the end. The bike plowed to a halt and Geoff catapulted into mid-air, landing in a thorn bush. A tour bus was not far behind, and it stopped and the tourists took photos of him and inquired whether he was all right.
He was. His knee would be a little gimpy for a couple of days, and his Yamaha XT’s shifter was a bit of whack, but no major problems. “I actually felt better after that crash,” he said, referring to his girlfriend frustrations. “I knew I was going to hit it hard today. Something was going down, me or the bike, and it ended up being both.”
I had seen the end of adventure in Bolivia and in Argentina. I had ridden the World’s Most Dangerous Highway in Bolivia (most of it in the back of a pickup thanks to a stricken motorbike), northeast of the capital of La Paz, not long before a new paved road opened and the old dirt track, carved audaciously into the sides of vertiginous cliffs, closed.
And on the legendary Ruta 40 in Argentina, I had ridden ruefully past construction crews that were paving this notoriously rutted and gravelly route to Ushuaia. It was sad to see, from the perspective of adventure motorcycling. I believe I’ve heard that now almost all of Ruta 40 is dull tarmac, virtually devoid of two-wheeled adventure.
Surely they will never pave the roads to Timbuktu. Then it would no longer be Timbuktu.