In retrospect, the only reason I could have wanted to go to Timbuktu -- on the southern edge of the Sahara desert in Mali -- was to be able to say afterward that I'd been there. I never reached my goal, but I had the most harrowing vacation of my life trying.
It was the summer of 1964 and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Africa, a job rich in spiritual satisfaction but definitely short on material remuneration -- which meant that the three-week trip qualified, to say the least, as roughing it. The itinerary was supposed to go like this: Abidjan (Ivory Coast) to Ouagadougou (in what was then called Upper Volta) by train, Ouagadougou to Niamey (Niger) by bus, Niamey to Gao (Mali) by bush taxi, Gao to Timbuktu by river boat.
The accommodations -- or those I could afford -- were primitive, the heat was annihilating and, since the water was suspect, the local bottled Orange Crush served as the chief means of slaking my perpetual thirst. Except that when I crossed over the frontier into Niger, I realized I had no local currency. Nor, among the few palm trees and border shacks, was there anything approximating a bank. Officially destitute for the next 10 hours, I was unable even to purchase Orange Crush. As the bus rumbled over the desiccated landscape, visions of ice-cream sodas and sundaes danced before my eyes -- the only hallucination I have ever experienced and one that contrasted oddly with the herds of giraffes loping gracefully across the desert sands.
By the time I reached Gao and prepared to board what had been described to me as a charming river boat, I was informed that drought had so lowered the waters of the Niger River that the voyage was off. Timbuktu was inaccessible until the rains came, which was likely to be a matter of months. I was stranded in Gao, a town that looked like Dry Gulch in an old Western serial.
Five sweltering days later, I managed to wangle a seat on an Air Mali plane. It had four wings (two on each side) and was crammed with passengers, chickens and baskets of produce that rolled down the aisles. To this day I am amazed the contraption ever got off the ground.
The plane deposited me downriver in Mopti (Mali), a mud-baked town described not inappropriately as the Venice of Africa. Great for photographs. Not great for swimming. I couldn't understand the cries of the Africans one night when I plunged into the waters to cool off. Only after I'd climbed back onto the bank did I realize they were shouting, "Caimans! Caimans!" ("Alligators!").
So it went. In Mopti, I was momentarily detained by the police for taking photographs of the local populace doing their laundry at the riverbank. Among the crowd, it seems, were several bare-breasted women of the sort who once turned up regularly in the pages of the National Geographic, but due to a sudden burst of national propriety were now judged off-limits for amateur photographers like myself.
The police ultimately chose not to confiscate my film and in a congenial about-face volunteered to drive me to Bamako (Mali), my next destination. I rode in the back seat of an open jeep with a manacled criminal whose crime or fate I never ascertained. The jeep proceeded at reckless speeds around hairpin turns, barely missing at one point a family of orangutans ambling across the dusty road.
Exhausted, hungry, covered with a patina of red clay, I ended up hitching a ride to Abidjan in the back of a truck loaded with beans. The final leg of my journey took 14 bruising hours, and somewhere en route I lost the key to my house. Arriving at 11 p.m., with no landlord to be found, I collapsed on the stone doorstep and slept soundly for 10 hours.
It was the worst vacation I ever took. Or maybe the best