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.


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?


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