The reason why I came to Timbuktu in January 2009 was to attend the Festival au Desert 70 km north west of Timbuktu. The mix of desert, camels, Tuareg and African music was very tempting for me. We camped in the dunes in front of the main stage behind a dune ridge used as gallery for the main stage.
In the evening from 8 pm till about 2 am yu could see and hear the great performances at the mainstage. Every time it was a big surprise wich artists would show up. The well known Tuareg Tinerawen announced in the program at internet didn't show up. Also Zap Mama from Belgium announced in the leaflet at the fetival didn't show up. But in this 9th edition in 2009 we had performances of Salif Keita at the first night and of Vieux Farka, the son of Ali Farka Toure, Desert Blue and Habib Koite at the last night.
You could sit in front of the stage. Half way the stage people were dancing the whole night. The half circular dune ridge at the background formed a natural gallery where the audience had a good overview and was kept warm by fire baskets. By all those fires in the full moonlight it looked like a fairytale.
For more have a look at my Essakane, Festival au Desert page. Here you can also see and hear videos to get an impression of the festival.
During the day you could rest after the late nigth, walk around the festival area, enjoy the white sanddunes and the camels, visit the artisan market, have a chat or Tuareg tea. Sometimes there were small performances and conferences.
In the afternoon from 5 pm till about 7 pm the performances of local and traditional groups ( picture 1 & 3) started at a second stage in the middle of the dunes. At both sides you could sit at the dunes for a good overview (picture 2 & 3). The Tuareg men mostly came on their camels and had a first class seat with the best view at teh stage high from the camelbacks (picture 5).
If you have done any reading on Timbuktu you know the city was founded on the salt/gold trade. The salt came by camel caravan from the North and was traded for gold from the South in Timbuktu. If you are the adventurous type you can still trek with a camel caravan into the desert. The trip takes about two weeks (give or take a few extra days) and while the trip itself is free you will need to bring your own food and water for the trip and pay the cost of hiring 4x4 to get back into town.
This is not a scheduled trip so it will take some advance planning or be prepared to wait in Timbuk if not. You should be able to get some help from the the hotel or you can contact Traoreabdou at Traoreabdou2001@yahoo.fr (cell 76020312) and he can set you up with his Taureg friend who runs the caravan up to the family salt mine. Keep in mind they will try and sell you things along the way and the 4x4 trip back will be expensive unless you haggle hard with them prior to the trip. One thing is that it will be a trip of a lifetime even though it may feel like the journey itself took a lifetime to complete.