Camels from Timbuktu to Essakane

A slow lazy 6 day camel trek with Tuareg friends, West from Timbuktu, Mali to the incredible annual music festival in the desert at Essakane.


The river to Timbuktu

January 2006...
There's now a new 'road' through the desert, North off the tarmac on sandy tracks from Douentza to get to Timbuktu, finishing in a ferry to cross the wide Niger river.

Travelling with Baaba, good friend and driver from Timbuktu, many memories of our adventures together a few years ago in the surreal remote Niger desert North of Agadez were shared again early in January this year during our 4x4 journey around Burkina Faso - or on the frequent puncture repair stops while continuing into Mali.

But, is our Tuareg driver, Baaba really a Bozo fisherman at heart?!

Strange the quiet of the luminous waters, reflected into a luminous sky, after hours of grinding through all the corrugated sand tracks and acacia thorn trees.


Encore en famille en Tombouctou

Although it's exactly four years since my last time researching there, walking the dusty streets of 'Tombouctou La Mystérieuse' again it is so very familiar. The sandy roads, the maze of mud buildings, the figures drifting around in long robes - and feeling more comfortable and properly dressed wearing my own cotton Tuareg 'blues', with the burn hole from a Niger campfire completed this time with a matching blue arm cast, a December blessing from the Christo for daring to top His statue in Rio.

Tuareg men think that the indigo cloth's blue staining of a women's skin is very attractive. In the West we've lost our appreciation for precious cloths, say like the silks you find in India. For the Tuareg, the most precious is the indigo material, 'tagelmoust' which costs a fortune per metre and is worn at weddings or special occasions like below, or given as important gifts to a chief. The indigo dye is rubbed by hand into the tagelmoust until it has a metallic black-purple sheen. The slightest touch with a finger comes away blue.

It will probably take two weeks again of blue showers to get the dye out of my hair from my indigo 'shesh' (turban) I guess. Traditional Tuareg men cover their mouth at all times with strangers, often instinctively punctuating conversations by adjusting the amount of nose and mouth they reveal - a sort of body language signing the state of play of the relationship. After spending time with them, I've now also started to feel embarrassed to be caught 'with my shesh down' when meeting a stranger - you are judged by your shesh and how it is wrapped and draped. So, it's quite a worrying test, my having to bind the 5metres of my indigo shesh round my head for the first time for 4 years in front of Tuareg friends ! Luckily, my hands remember the folds and twists by themselves and so the verdict was 8 out of 10!

Some signs of improvements in the town can be seen since four years ago, thanks to the German and Canadian development aid money. It's eventually got through to doing some real good on the ground- like the paving stones being laid around the ancient Djingarey Ber mud-walled mosque, the water reservoir and the big new grande marché building, built to replace the one that fell down.

Signs of changing times too, like the teenagers around the big Timbuktu college high school with dreadlocks or wearing the latest Bamako jeans. The biggest change: mobile phones everywhere that threaten the old telecentre phone cabins where making a phone call was a long wait, an opportunity to chat with the others patiently waiting for the 'lottery'- a successful connection across the antiquated Malian network- and listen in on interesting conversations on the shared phone!

How ironic and sad that the cell phone which promises freedom mobility should be the reason why many nomads are now moving closer to Timbuktu to settle there within the range of the town's cellular coverage!

Anyway at least some of the mystery is still being preserved:

I checked out that one plaque is still there from the last time - just like worthy H. Barth's and R. Caille's plaques above the big Moroccan-studded doors... delusions of grandeur and posterity!

An old man wanted a reward for taking a stick to some bad kids who had been throwing stones at it. Disgraceful! Nice to see that the Timbuktu heritage is being protected there anyway and hear that some tourists have been taken to see the 'other special plaque' in Timbuktu - for an extra CFA commission to my Tuareg guide friends, of course!

On the veranda where everyone meets at the back of the old hotel Bouctou, looking out on the desert watching kids playing evening football on the sand and donkeys laden with fodder, nothing seemed to have changed.

It touched my heart to be greeted so warmly by many, many Tombouctien friends: Maiga the barber of Timbuktu; Suleman; 'Sandy' the Tuareg chief with a sense of humour as dry as the desert; Ms. Toure, Baaba, Ismail and all the staff of the Bouctou; little Boudjema from the remote village of Araouane disappearing in the sand halfway on the caravan route from the salt mines on the Algerian border; 'le pilot du desert' big Boudjema who featured in an interview with Bob Geldof last year and many more - even the ever-friendly cripple Bunji, almost falling over on his crutches rushing across the sand to say hello again - and last but not least my adopted Tuareg 'brother', dear Azima.

Time to catch up on each others' families and news before separating the luggage to set off West into the desert the following morning.

Back - en famille


Slowing down

The following morning sees an early start after the last chance for any proper wash for at least a week. 16-legged transport is already folded down on the sand behind the hotel Bouctou, surrounded by bags around which cluster the Tuaregs whom we will get to know well in the next few days: Mohamedune our guide and herder, young Mohamed our earnest interpreter, Al Hadana the cameleer clown and Omar who seems to have come along for the ride to Essakane. We'll be carrying quantities of the strong Chinese green tea and sugar (10kgs of sugar for each 1 kg of tea) that is the essence of Tuareg hospitality, as presents for the encampments we will visit on the way.

OK, it's partly apprehension from previous prolonged and intimate encounters with the hard wooden saddles (a small cushion is a good idea to have in reserve for the soft Westerner), but this morning walking feels good exercise after the 4x4. So heading out westward, our party sets off. It's hardly a trek this time, more a 6 day stroll stopping to visit Tuareg encampments en route with only 70km to cover, which we would have done in 2 or 3 long days if we were back on the salt caravan trail. Well, it's not quite a stroll, as you need to walk 4 - 5 mph to keep up with the camels. Rapidly I remember to take a route over the hardest sand and shorten my stride where it's soft. The locals have a highly-developed, constant speed 'soft sandle shuffle' which minimizes slippage and wasted effort: their footprints are always cleaner than mine.

A few hours later and it's time for a lunch siesta in whatever tiny piece of shade that can be found in the heat of the day and for talking and snoozing. Saddles and bags are taken off the four camels, set free to wander off and graze. It's always seems a bit strange, the things are taken off the camels and left right there - one place in the desert is, after all, as good as any other. They've a saying, 'The camel has to eat but the thorns can blind its eye' - a nice way to put everything worthwhile carries a risk.

Time too for the Tuareg tea ceremony: three cups of the sweet caffeine-jolts of strong Chinese green tea, lovingly made in the traditional small blue enamel teapot over a tiny charcoal brazier that's carried on the side of the saddle. Making tea is essential desert hospitality for Tuaregs to greet strangers or open any meetings. The tea-maker takes great care and pride in the whole process, sipping samples of the brew, pouring it back into the pot, until finally with a flourish he pours out the gold nectar from a great height into three tiny glass cups for the critical palates of those present. Cups are passed round on a silver platter in a strict order of seniority, to be taken in the right hand, drunk quickly and with suitably appreciative noise, then passed back for people waiting. Subsequent rounds are made later by adding even more sugar to the brew. The first round of tea 'as bitter as death' from the pot packed with tea leaves starts the exchange of pleasantries and news, whilst the second, 'as sweet as life' marks the opening of more serious matters and the final round 'as sugary as love' signals closure and time to depart.

Whenever Tuaregs are sitting around talking, their hands seem to be continually sketching to mark and illustrate the conversation or just to doodle patterns and play in the pure fine, free-flowing sand.

With all the new places and busy experiences of Burkina Faso, the first day of walking in the low dun-coloured dunes past occasional acacia thorn trees, I'm thinking I must be a bit crazy, there's nothing to do here! Later, as the days past the silence of the desert fills you. Your senses open up. You see, feel and hear the small things, slow down and get into the rhythm of desert travel on foot or rocking on camelback, enjoy the sunrises, sunsets and evening campfires and feel quiet inside, small in the landscape. Essakane feels like an interruption by the time we get there - you just want to keep on going towards the sunsets until you arrive in Mauritania.


Sandy's Camp

The first night is at chief Sandy's camp, with the water tower and biggest mosque of Timbuktu still just visible on the East horizon. The camp has moved from its location when I last visited, but they've rebuilt the thorn barracade that keeps the goats in at night and breaks the wind. It encircles a few low-domed poled huts covered with matting and pointed leathern tents.

How is it that we seem to need so many things in Western homes? Apart from the long Tuareg aluminium coffer of clothes and jewelry, the cooking utensils, water skin and the ubiquitous big colour-striped plastic kettle for pouring water, everything else they need seems to be hung or poked into the domed roof - a silver pipe, a few spoons, a camel switch festooned with ornamental yellow, red and black dyed leather strips. Its salutary that we seem to be carrying more gear, what with sleeping bags, torches, clothes, water bottles, cameras, books etc in two bags than these nomads have in all their mobile home.

Sandy's wife prepares a big bowl of rice with a few pieces of meat that we share around a small fire that night, eating with right hands. The soft talking in Tamasheq, punctuated with glasses of tea, goes on long into the night, until on invisible signal everyone goes to bed. Suddenly in a couple of minutes the whole camp is silent and everyone else is asleep. Yes, I definitely do need a sleeping bag against the bitter cold of a desert night! A hardy scrap of a desert girl will just scoup out a hole in the sand, cover herself in her black robe and sleep soundly in tight ball, wrapped in the utter silence and roofed by a blaze of stars that reach right down to the horizon. The stars! With all the light pollution from houses, roads and airports in England, you can rarely see the firmament. By day here the desert to the horizon dwarfs travellers, by night the heavens. People are humbled - doesn't our spirit need to experience such places?


Watching the sunsets, private emotions

Morning breaks on the daily problem of finding 4 camels, which may by now be 5km or more away after their night of browsing. The less the vegetation, the further away they will be. I'm still amazed how the Tuareg do this. They say they follow the footprints of the oldest or slowest camel - and true, sometimes they hobble one to hop around on 3 legs all night, which tends to reduce their range. I guess if you are a cameleer, you quickly develop extremely good eyesight to spot sandy-coloured camels far off in the sandscape and learn how to differentiate your camels' footprints from everyone else's otherwise you'll have a very long walk. Once one is found, things get a bit easier, with an elevated viewing platform from which to spy and ride to collect the others. Miraculously, it never seems to be more than an hour before Al Hadana appears back at our camp leading four roped camels.

Mounting up with an abrupt backward and forward jerk as my camel unfolds itself, we ride off together balancing on the hump-top saddles, watching that pots, blankets or luggage don't work lose from their ropes and get left behind. Each rock of the camel you have to nudge the beast onward with your feet, the bottom curve of its strong coarse-haired neck caught between the toes of your crossed legs.

There's an enormous difference between the camels in a caravan, that plod on tied nose to tail carrying the heavy salt slabs like carriages of a long goods train, and the responsiveness of a racing camel to the slightest movement of the reins. The rather old big camel I've been assigned is a constant-speed plodder. Very well behaved, but no amount of foot-nudging will get it out of second gear!

Our stop for the night is at Mohamedune's scattered encampment. It's set by a beautiful golden sand dune, from which you can see the mountains in the distance near Essakane to which we have been heading all day, but which seem just as distant. Mohamedune has been away for many days, but it's not done for Tuaregs to publicly show emotions. Later on when we are settled in our own camp at a discreet separation, he'll go and greet his wife and their small children.

Tuareg men and women lead quite separate lives with different friends. Men are often away from their camp for several weeks. The women stay to look after the children and their animals. Male strangers are not allowed to visit the camp while the menfolk are away. Women therefore have quite a limited social circle except at big clan gatherings or festivals, for instance when celebrating a birth or marriage. However the code in traditional Tuareg society seems much stricter for the men than the women: honour, bravery, trust, respect for women and religious devotion.

Later we meet Mohamedune's family and his pretty wife cooks a big spagetti bowl for us. (Men only cook when they are travelling.)

He's proud to show us the fine silver jewelry and ornamental leather work they produce to sell during the short 3-month Timbuktu tourist season.

Once the land the Sahara sands have covered was fertile, with trees, lakes and wild life in abundance, supporting many people as shown in the rock art. Often sea shells or pottery shards from ancient settlements can be found in the dunes. Mohamedune says that sometimes if you are very, very lucky the old pots they find like this might contain treasure - or perhaps a Djinni ?

After Moslim prayer prostration on the top of the golden sand dune, silent figures watch the last light of the day. Mohamedune stands, hand-in-hand with his little daughter in a pink coat as big as she is - private time at peace together... Sunset reflections.


Tales and Jokers

Hospitality runs deep in these desert people. For example, the nomadic custom is to give gifts when you leave your host, rather than when you arrive as we might. It is much more important that you have their prayers for your safe continuing journey through the dangers of the desert and the uncertainties of future life than what might be construed as a ‘down payment’ on their hospitality.

We express our gratitude with gifts of green tea and sugar and in return receive blessings, goat’s milk and a full skin of well water. Salaam Alaikum: peace be with you. Mohamedune’s family return to their herding and we depart without looking back. He will be away for another week or two. Backward glances or waving would be very rude - the host might feel that all that should have be said was not said, or that we had not been sent on our way properly.

A gentle day’s journey towards the distant pink mountain with a long stop for lunch in the heat passes easily. Young Mohamed is now accepted by the other three who were old friends and demonstrates his fearless bareback riding skills.

Al Hadana, the cameleer is our joker, whether noisily imitating Tamasheq ‘rap’, showing off by balancing on one foot on his camel or holding forth around the campfire at night.

Stories run deep in this culture. It’s the way to teach about life in the desert, history, Islam, morals or nomadic customs. Sometimes storytelling is the way to cool meetings between clans in conflict. Sometimes it’s just for pure entertainment on long desert journeys or for whispering in soft Tamasheq around the fire long into the night. Old and young love their stories. There's an old Sudanese proverb: 'Salt comes from the North, gold from the South, money from the land of the white man, but the word of God, holy things and beautiful tales one finds them only in Timbuktu'.

What a surprise to find out that the stories being told around the fire with such delight are just like the old '1001 Arabian Nights' tales! Stories of magic calabashes, serpents, sons with magic powers and princesses falling in love with slaves! The tales are handed down as Tuareg family heirlooms in precious manuscripts written in arabic. In the 14th century, when Timbuktu was the centre of learning of the African Islamic world, all the scholars and teachers came to study and write in Timbuktu. There are still 25000 rare manuscripts in the libraries of Timbuktu, full of legends, poetry, Koranic teaching, early astronomy, medicine and mathematics. Perhaps some of the 1001 Arabian Nights tales were actually written here, then taken back to Persia!
Al Hadana tells stories with great energy, kicking showers of coals over Omar or waving his knife to emphasize a point, to the delight of the audience gathered around the fire.



The young brown camel is bad tempered and needs regularly to be reminded who's boss.

Powered by Castpost

The others are more phlegmatic about life as a camel.


Muslim Festival and sacrifices

The birth day of Mohamed is a very special day in the Muslim calendar for prayers and feasts. Not the best of days for the goats and sheep however, especially the sacred white ones, as every family is duty bound to sacrifice an animal to share for the festival. Around noon we stopped in sight of a small tent encampment where prayers were going on. Al Hadana was only carrying a small hold-all, and that he now revealed was almost filled to bursting with his best white robes of the precious fine-patterned 'bazin' damask cotton and a black gleaming indigo shesh. He rode off for prayers, obviously conscious that he cut a fine figure .

Omar wore his wallet, a decorated leather sliding pouch and like all Tuareg men come of age, his razor sharp sword - serious stuff almost as big as him! After a wild whooping charging-camel return to our little band from the ceremony, the robes were very carefully repacked again until arrival at the Essakane festival.

We stopped mid-afternoon to make camp for the night on some dunes. Just over the rise was one of those amazing ancient scenes you come across in the Sahara, lit golden in the late afternoon. Lines of animals being led by their herders across the sand to an ancient well. Herders wait their turn, each carrying their own worn wooden pulley to put over the wooden axle born by the Y-shaped supports over the well mouth. A boy drives the donkeys out, pulling about 30-40 metres of rope to haul a big leather bag heavy with water up from the depths beneath the desert, to the accompaniment of pulley screeches and donkey complaints. The precious water is then tipped into shallow troughs for thirsty animals to push to get and the donkeys are returned to the well to start all over again. I watched the scene for while and strolled down to the well. One of the herders recognised me from Araoune 4 years ago !

Mohamedune came to speak with me. It seemed that our band, already disappointed that they could not be with their familes on this sacred day, were upset that they could not afford an animal to sacrifice . I offered to help with a modest contribution. After a long discussion with the herders, eventually a special deal was struck for a sheep with one herder- of course one of our group's extended Tuareg network of cousins- much to everyone's relief.

The unfortunate animal was led off to the sand near where I happened to be sitting and had its throat slit by Al Hadana's razor sharp knife. Feeling responsible for the death I felt bound to watch somewhat sickened as without a murmur the animal looked back at me, its blood draining into the sand.

It took a few minutes to die and the last kicks to cease, although presumably it was a fairly painless end. The butchering was very efficient, with younger Omar and Mohamed getting lessons- meat is rarely affordable for these people. Within a few minutes, the animal was skinned and reduced to a carcase and pieces of meat, the skin being stretched over acacia bush thorns to dry. Nothing gets wasted.

Mohamedune called out to a local woman, silhouetted on nearby dune, her black robe billowing. The woman seemed frightened of strangers, so he gathered up the skin, the head and intestines and went off to catch her. As he said later, 'When you are lucky to have, it's necessary to share with those that don't'. That's the Muslim way.

Later as the meat was barbecued that night, as a mark of honour we were brought the liver and kidneys as special delicacies on the silver tea platter, although the more ordinary joints that they ate would probably have been preferred! (Luckily the woman's family enjoyed the eyes, I guess.) The meat lasted our party several days, adding taste to the enormous bowls of rice everyone seems to polish off and providing much relished fat for a nomad's diet.


Sand, everywhere sand.

The desert is a dangerous environment. If you've ever watched a water container that you can't stop leaking dripping into the sand from the camel plodding in front of you with two days still to go to the next well, you get a tiny idea of how uncertain is desert life. Many nomads have frightening stories of being lost in the endless dunes.

Good friend 'Mr. One O'clock' Big Boudjema, whom Bob Geldorf recently featured, is one of those rare desert guides, a true 'pilot du desert'. He can find his way in the 'Azawad' North of Timbuktu, where there is no feature or vegetation in every direction to the horizon's curvature. In such places without reference points the eye becomes confused by scale - a small shrub closeby can appear to be a far off tree. Big Boudj can read the dunes and orientate from the colour, texture and even taste of the sand. He tells the tale of when he was called to try to find three lost cameleers from the salt mines on the Algerian border. Their camels had arrived at Arouane on autopilot without their masters. By following the occasional trace left from the lead camel's rope, they found one man still just alive, but the other two had died of thirst. The rescue party had to mark the dunes to find their own way back. As Boudjema says, you have to remember perfectly in order every single small landmark. Otherwise your tracks will be lost as a dunebug's.

Mohamed, our translator described how his grandfather took him into the desert at the age of 14. Saying he would be back in a few hours, he left Mohamed with a camel, some rice and a few days of water. The boy waited one, two nights but no grandfather. Eventually after trying to find his way, with water running out he met some travellers who gave him directions. Stumbling back to his home encampment just before a rescue party set off, Mohamed was welcomed back with a big celebration from his test of manhood. He says after that experience he will never ever be afraid of anything again.

Passing a little boy riding barebacked by himself with a group of donkeys, I realise that his immediate environment and the local trails through the acacias must be as familiar to him as the streets are back home.

One day as an experiment I walked away from our small camp, trying to carefully note landmarks of dunes and vegetation. Rapidly the camp disappears behind the dunes and your tracks are quickly erased by any wind, leaving you uncertain of the precise direction back despite trying to remember the exact position of the sun. Your nice 'landmark' dune looks different from a slightly different direction. At night even in bright moonlight the white surreal landscape becomes unfamiliar and confusing. Salt caravans from the Algerian border navigate by stars during the cool of the night. But if there is no moon and the sky is obscured by clouds or dust, then they have to navigate by the direction of the dunes that form at right angles to the prevailing N wind, or the tiny piles of sand trailing on the leeward of any scrub. Will GPS make people blasé to these fiercely beautiful, but hostile landscapes?

The constant mantra 'Insh-Allah'- God willing, and their Islamic humility and fatalism are understandable in such an environment. Their code places hospitality to strangers above all else. As they say, next time it could be you seeking help.


Mountains, clean sand and wild winds

Finally after days on the horizon, the pink mountain we will have to skirt to get to our destination looms large. Our last night on the road before the festival of Essakane, we make camp on white sand dunes not far from the East side of the mountain range.

Tuaregs are very fussy about the right spot to pitch camp: near some acacia tree shade, making use of any wind break against the prevailing northerlies and on pure clean sand, not too close to vegetation. Vegetation means occasional scorpions which have a nasty sting and can crawl into boots at night. It's a bit disturbing getting up to find you've just been sitting on an unhappy rather flattened transparent critter.

But the real bane of Tuareg life near some vegetation is 'cram-crams'. These supremely-adapted burrs hitch on to any rare visitors that pass in the desert with their vicious tiny barbs that cling to everything - not just clothes but flesh as well. They take ages to remove as they stick in your fingers too and often leave fine prickly spines under the skin like from a cactus. Some Tuaregs carry handy ornate silver tweezers on a string around their neck.

A last night for our little band to savour the silence and the friendship that's developed. A last sunset by ourselves. No one says, but there's a sadness in the air and we're not looking forward to the people and noise we'll face on the morrow. Really I'd prefer to keep on going westward to Mauritania.

That night is full of wild wind djinnis. Suddenly the wind picks up and howls, buffeting the little round tent. I crawl out into a strange landscape white under a fat moon with acacia trees bending in the fierce invisible blast and sand starting to lift into the air. There's a big heap of the others sheltering behind a bush, blissfully slumbering on top of each other under a big woollen blanket. Thorny branches scratch my hands trying to peg the guy lines. Heaping sand all round the canvas edges, I crawl back into the tent fearing the bending and thrashing tent poles will break.

In the morning the wind has gone as suddenly as it arrived. The dunes have presumably crept a few centimetres further and the sand is trackless and pristine again - the wind has erased our history. Quite unconcerned by the wild night, the guides say, 'Yes the wind is always strong near the mountain'. Is this some effect of physics, the range channelling the wind or the lack of any trees close to the mountain to act as a break, or do the djinnis live there?


A music festival at the end of the earth

(Click on any image here to enlarge it!)

Arrival at Essakane for the 6th 'Festival au Desert' is a shock and a wonder. The festival is organised by the Tuareg Manny Ansar, based originally on their annual clan gatherings. It's free for the locals who have turned up by the truckload, on two legs or on four legs.

Three days and nights of golden world music from West Africa, Ireland and USA in the most surreal setting imaginable in the middle of nowhere. Mind blowing! Beautiful pure white sand dunes dotted with tents, set against mountains in the far distance.

Proud men in robes of gorgeous rich colours carrying serious cutlery, a melee of riders on white camels decorated with crowns for the special occasion, 4x4's revving but stuck in the sand, drifting groups of Tuareg women in black with children, even a few hundred paying occidentals wandering around looking very bemused.

Most tourists have arrived the quick but noisy way, grinding along the sand tracks by 'khat-khat': 4x4 from Timbuktu.

The main stage faces the sunsets and is placed in a natural amphitheatre.

Rows of people can lie on the sand bank to listen to the concerts - or sit, stand and ride in a three-tiered audience.

Incongruously, there's a big high-tech audio mixing desk in front that would grace any rock gig and generators power a massive megawatt sound system.

What a superior position to watch a music concert from- an ornate camel saddle!

The inevitable range of fine Tuareg jewelery, the last ancient Dogon carved mask and doors, ethnic pots, traditional leatherwork and fine cloth is gathered in a corral in the camp, its hustlers eager to adorn the Europeans' bodies and homes, with 'very good starting prices' at the ready.

There's a formidable line up of Tuareg warriors on camels, enough to frighten any colonial expeditionary force.

Greetings from Azima, looking very grand in new brown robes.

Other dear friends from Timbuktu are there full of smiles little Boudj and many more, including a Dogon guide too.

Essakane is a kaleidescope of experiences: meeting singer Habib Koite behind the main stage and his surprise at an English fan club recalling his first London gig; a group of shy beautiful Tuareg women wearing silver hair ornaments that take a day to sew in;

a dwarf lead singer with the personality and voice of a giant being outrageously sexy on stage to the delight of an ecstatic crowd; dangerous tall charcoal braziers keeping the audience warm at night; the strains of haunting Irish folk songs and fiddle jigs; amazement of local teenagers pressing in to see a Scottish fire breathing and fire juggling act; the camel races charging recklessly through the crowd; camel dressage and walking with its front legs bent; parades for judging the best camel (white of course!); a row of proud camel riders being asked to move because they were blocking the low sun on the stage;

Irish and African drummers jamming together watched by a lone colourful figure against sky dusty from the wind;

the elegant soft swaying of male Tuareg dancers sitting cross-legged waving their swords (the only time they are allowed to unsheath them without drawing blood) or suddenly leaping, light-footed into the air like flying sheets; a veiled nomad in long robes playing rock on an electric guitar...

Great music goes on for a rapturous audience until about 3am, the megawatt system enough to keep you awake in your tent far from the main stage. Then you're woken up by camel growling and their owners talking while making their 6am tea, sitting right next to the canvas!

Walking back at night under a full moon along a high narrow dune ridge with cold sand on your feet, listening to the strange harmonies of Tuareg music and looking out over a wonderous scene with glowing red campfires and tents scattered amoung the white dunes is like being in a magic dream, worthy of 1001 Arabian nights.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. Why not experience the festival at Essakane yourself next January?