Reaching Timbuktu is sometimes hard and it's part of its charm. But once you are there, the way back can be a little hard and have lost its charm once you have done it before.
So I thought it would be a good idea to reserve a flight back to Bamako with MAE. I don't regret, believe me. Reaching Bamako could be 3-4 days minimum overland, by plane is just a couple of hours (it stops in Mopti to pick up passengers).
The one way ticket is 150 euros. You can reserve the ticket online (see www below) and pay it once you arrive in Bamako. No credit cards accepted.
2-3 filghts weekly.
One way to reach Timbuktu is to take a pinasse from Mopti to Timbuktu. The journey will take about 3 days. A pinasse or pirogue is a shallow canoe like boat. The smaller ones can be paddled or punted. Sometimes a sail or motor is added. The bigger boats have always a motor.
Mostly you go by pinasse in the direction of Timbuktu downstream, because of our schedule and the dates of the festival au desert, our chartered boattrip was planned upstream from Timbuktu to Mopti. The three days boattrip is a relaxing (or boring) experience (depending on your mood). En route you can see all kind of birds, you will visit some small fishing villages. We saw even a spectacular crossing of the river by a herd of swimming cows. The two nights we slept in small tents on the sandy riverbanks. Fati our cook prepared delicious meals for us.
Our boattrip looked to become a perfect experience, but by the cold wind the temperature dropped dramatically. So the advised fleece jack for the chilly evenings or early mornings were even not enough to keep warm during the day.
Because we had to go upstream we had to make long days. By the adverse wind it even took longer. So we had to leave our camp sites early, when it was still dark. Because we made too less progress we had to continue sailing till about 8 pm. So we arrived also in the dark.
We landed in Konna, a small harbour east of Mopti, close to the mainroad. This time we arrived before dark in a quite harbour, a lot less stressful than Mopti.
If you like a relaxed three days, I advise you to make this boattrip, The Niger and the life along the river is an important part of Mali. But make the trip downstream, so you will safe time. And the cold: everybody told me it was an rare exception.
We came to Timbuctu by road. We travelled in a closed truck with busseats. We left from Mopti/Sévaré early morning for the trip of 325 km. The first part from Sévaré to Douentza was by tarred road and rather comfrotable. It took us three and half hour.
From Douentza we took the piste northbound in the direction of Timbuctu. The track was ok, not really bumpy. Only the red dust entered the compartment of the truck from the bottom, because the door didn't close very well. Everything including ourselves became red of the dust. After another three and half hour we reached the Niger river and the ferry to Timbuctu, far before dark.
Coming by road from Douentza to Timbuktu you have to cross the Niger by ferry. After crossing the Niger it's still another 15 km to Timbuktu. Crossing the river itself will take about half an hour. But be prepared you need sometimes to wait long before it's you turn to drive your car on the ferry.
In january 2009 the day before the festival in Essakane waiting hours increase to 6 hours or more. Luckily we had not to wait until our truck could board the ferry. We could go by feet. At the landing stage we found out why it took so long. There were two very small ferries and only one bigger one. We were at the bigger one, where they loaded 14 4x4 cars. It took a lot of time before all those cars found their right place, driving backwards with only a few cms in between the cars.
At the smaller ferry which was at the landing place at the same time they tried to board a herd of cows. But the cows refused to walk on the boat theirselves. So they had to been dragged one by one. At the end the ferry started its crossing with only a small part of the herd.
Though we arrived at the river at 4.30 pm and took the ferry by feet rather soon and there were even already cars waiting for us at the other side, we arrived in the hotel first 3 hours later at 7.30 pm. Our truck arrived another 2 or 3 hours later at almost 10 pm.
We came to Timbuktu to visit the Festival au Desert in Essakane, 70 km north west of Timbuktu. We planned to leave Timbuktu at 10 am, but the evening before we heard we should leave first at 2 pm in the second convoy of 4x4's of the tour agency. I was not unhappy about that, so we got the possibility to visit the old town of Timbuktu in the morning.
At 2 pm there were no 4WD cars yet. After more than one hour we heard they were on their way back from Essakane to Timbuktu to pick us up. After still another hour it turned out the cars broke down in the desert. So our tour agency had to arrange 4 other 4x4's in town at a moment every vehicle which could ride was on its way to Essakane. Finally at 4.30 pm we could leave for the festival.
I was in the front car. First we took the unpaved road in the direction of Goundam. About 35 km from Goundam we took the sandy track north into the desert. At than moment we found out that we were only with 3 of the 4 cars. At the police checkpoint the policemen told the drivers there was something with the 4th car. We waited some time to get more news. Then the drivers decided that the third car should go back. So we continued with only two cars into the desert. We had a fabulous sunset en route and arrived first in the festival area in the dark. In the meantime we had heard by mobile phone that the 4th car had an accident. Luckily nobody was hurt and another car was on its way to pick up our fellwo travellers of that crashed car.
It took some time before we found our camp, because the driver didn't know and we didn't either exactly the place of our camp. The guide who knew was in one of the other cars. While our driver tried to make a short-cut, our car get stuck in the soft dunes. So it took another hour before we finally reached the place where we were supposed to put up our tents. At the moment we had installed our camp fro everybody around 9.30 pm also the last two cars arrived. Time for dinner, dance and music !
We supposed we arrived at the ferry in time to be in Timbuktu before dark. From far we saw already a long line of cars, all waiting for the ferry. Sometimes there are only a few cars and you can just take the first or second ferry. Sometimes there are more cars and you have to wait more than one or two hour.
Now the day before the Festival au Desert would start, the cue was very long. We found out that it would take six hours before it was the turn of our truck to board the ferry. There was much to see like the canoes, the traders, donkeys, but stay there for 6 hours until about 9 or 10 pm, was not really what we liked.
Luckily we got the message from the local tour agency that we could go on the ferry on foot. At the other side cars were waiting for us to bring us to the hotel in Timbuktu 15 km north of the river. So we could have a shower and dinner before the truck with our luggage should arrive. That sounded like a good solution.
The road is OK for your mobilhome. You might have to cross river with a local ferry. Lots of people travel in Mali with a small van (king of Toyota Hiace) and there is no problem.
I did it with a motorbike but I guarantee that you can travel with a non 4WD car.
" the road between Bamako and Timbuktu is excellent"
How exellent? Does anybody know if that road is possible to overcome by camper (motorhome). It is not 4X4.
I would like to reach Timbuktu by such a car from Morocco, through Mavretania to Senegal and at the end to Bamako and Timbuktu.
When the Lonely Planet claims the ride to Timbuktu is rough they are not kidding. The ride from Mopti takes 8-9 hours depending on how long you spend waiting for the ferry at the end of the ride. You spend about an hour or two so on a paved road and after that it is either sand or the red basalt like stuff that will get everywhere in your stuff. While they tend to grade the road from time to time ( I saw them grading it in a few places) it is still like driving over a wash board. Try sitting on your washing machine while it is on spin cycle for 7 hours. You can veer off the road but then you end up in the sand and that can be even slower traveling. While I have been on worse roads or paths in the Big Island of Hawaii this one ranks as one of my rougher rides due to the shear duration. Due to the distance many 4x4s making the trip will not run the a/c due to overheating concerns so it can get a bit warm so don't forget your water.
Chances are if you are pressed for time you with either fly into or out of Timbuktu. The airport is not much to look at but you can buy some last minute trinkets for the family or a water if need be for the flight. CAM and MAE (Mali Air Express) both fly to Timbuktu and most flights make a stop in Mopti on the way to Bamako. The flight to Mopti is 30-40 min. If you are flying out they ask you to check in one hour prior to departure as they need the weights of all luggage for weight and balance on the flight. The airport is 10-15 min scooter or taxi ride into town. I hired a car but a scooter should only cost a couple of Euro or say 2,000 CFA (Say-fa).
The flight to Bamako with the stop in Mopti takes just under 2 hours. The tickets which can be purchased with cash in the big cities (Bamako, Mopti, Timbuktu, etc) cost around 92,000 CFA on CAM. I did not check the price on MAE but would imagine the price is similar. Both flights are on Western aircraft with American or European pilots. I had a Swiss and American captain flying the plane with a South African flight attendant. Safety is not an issue on these flights....Security? There is none.
COMANAV is the "Malian Company of Navigation". It has a big boat that sails the river from Koulikoro to Gao only in wet season (june to october). It has no fix schedules, so you have to ask and be lucky. I saw it just when I was arriving to Timbuktu, but didn't sail on it. Another traveller told me she had, and that it was a "too rough" experience... it can take 3-4 days to reach Timbuktu. It's definetly the cheapest way to reach Timbuktu. Cabins are small and hot, and there is no cafeteria on board, so if you decide to take the risk (sorry, I meant trip), be sure to have plenty of food, toilet paper, sleeping bag... just in case.
Pinasses are those big boats you can find in Mopti. Most are for locals going to some little village ahead. But some are private boats for tourists. You have to find a group leaving for Timbuktu and join them, as a whole boat for you only is a little nonsense. The best way is to wander about the embankment where the boats are and ask around. You will soon find a few pinasses leaving for Timbuktu, just compare prices and bargain.
The trip takes 3 days usually, and you sleep on the shores, in a tent. Arrange first if they provide the tent, if they cook on board or you have to bring your own food, if the trip includes visits to soem villages, stops to see animals (hippos, birds) and everything you can think of BEFORE you leave.
The fastest overland way to get to Timbuktu is on a 4x4 vehicle. It is the most expensive, but will take tou there in 10 hours, instead of 3-4 days that take the pirogues by river. You have to ask in hotels, guides, people in the street... if there is some car leaving next day, and then bargain the price. Dependeing on how many people travelling, the car... it might go from 30 to 80 euros. The car leaves at 8-9 and arrives there in the evening. Be sure to reach the river before sunset, if not you will have to wait for the ferry (that crosses to the Timbuktu side of the river) till the following day...
There are no public buses from the airport to the center, which is some 6 kms away. To get to the airport from Timbuktu I hired a motorbike who picked me up at the hotel and took me there in 10 minutes for about 2-3 euros. Ask at the hotel you are staying in, in advance.
Despite what you hear from others, it is perfectly possible to get to Timbuktu in 2wd cars - people who say differently have obviously not tried it.
We decided to take the hard route from Nema (Mauritanea) across to Nara, Leere Sokolo then Timbuktu. We managed this in just over 4 days. This was not to be done without planning. Some of the guys in 2 wheel drive cars had listened to rumours, and were too scared to take the hard route . They travelled down to Bamako first, to make more of the journey on sealed road. The route from Bamako to Timbuktu (via Sokolo and sandy tracks) took them 2 days with a guide and they arrived ahead of us in Timbuktu.
Timbuktu is a common tourist destination, as its name is well known. Anyone who expects miracles upon arrival has obviously not done their homework. There are plenty of Hotels but it's not a cheap place to stay.
Timbuktu has it's own charm, but nothing that deserves more than a day or two. There are a big mix of populations, which is evident if you take the time to look properly. Various different types of dwellings can be seen and these relate to the different roots of the population in history.
The modern buildings do not have the charm of historical Timbuktu, but there are still enough mud-brick houses and the mud-Mosque to remind you what it was like hundreds of years ago.
It is well worth to get a guided tour as you will quickly see the history of the town from places and items that you may not have noticed. The view from the top of the 3 story market building is not to be missed as you can make out soft sand on the horizon in all directions, and then look down on the bustling and noisy market streets.
We left Timbuktu towards Dogon country. The road was 200km of corrugations, which was quite wearing but far superior to the tracks we'd been on previously.
After 200km from Timbuktu we were on tarmac again - so the run through Dogone country was easy. We visited Mopti and Djenne and arrived at Bamako 2 days after leaving Timbuktu.