December 20, 2008 GMT
The road to Timbuktu and the road inside

The day started early with final checks and locating the road, a dirt track and certainly not obvious as the road to the fabled city. I almost expected something bigger, more used, signposted even! But it was flat or it appeared so at the start but one thing certain, it was daunting and exciting. The scenery initially was breathtaking with the rock formations in the distance too much to ride straight past but to photograph as well as could be, the sun was shining and the weather wasn't too hot to be uncomfortable.


The locals with their loaded donkeys weren't too pleased when Mark and I started taking photographs with one saying in french he wanted 100cfa to allow us to take pictures. We weren't even taking pictures of him, he chanced his arm and was ignored as a result. It did make me wonder however, he had 20 or so loaded donkeys going to some undisclosed place and as far as I could see there weren't anywhere on the map less than 100kms away, some life!
The road did offer us plenty of camera opportunities and when we came across our first sand pit the time was taken to ride through it on video. The bikes hitting the sand with enough speed to keep the front wheel from digging in but the back wheel snaking about nearly unseating both riders!
Both our riding styles are different, mine is quite aggressive which suited the corrugations where speed allows you to almost glide over the vibrations but having to be wary and look as far forward as possible to avoid hitting the sand traps unexpectedly. Marks riding style is more cautious, looking after his bike more and wary of the chances for a spill, he prefers 'waddling' through sand thinking of the risk and rewards to riding faster and the possibility of damaging the bike. Not a bad idea as we were in the middle of nowhere at the time.
There were other traffic, mainly 4x4's and their tourist passengers and going at a rapid rate of knots, their drivers, knowledgeable of the road of which they'll have travelled hundreds of times before, having the luxury of 4 wheels and the stability they provide being able to travel at 60+mph! I did see a pick up truck in the opposite direction, on a side track which must have been doing 90+mph! The passengers must have been good tippers or terrified!
I stopped occasionally for Mark to catch up, ensure he was fine and then set off again at my usual quick pace, enjoying the workout my arms and body was taking after the long hours of the road. After what appeared to be 10 hours of good work (it was only 6) and the final destination was so close yet denied by a ferry crossing. I almost wanted to ride into the town like a rally rider at the end of the race, triumphant, the crowds cheering, cameras pointed avidly taking pictures and reporters waiting for my every breathless word, but it was not to be. I rode along a peninsular to the ferry port, a motley collection of reed built huts and a bunch of undressed children, their eyes lighting up at the sight of a bedraggled rider and his machine, hot and pinging from temperature loss as the engine was cut off. I knew I had time to wait for Mark to join me and enquired for the ferry, 45 minutes or so came an answer from a local stall holder dressed in a tracksuit and Manchester United football shirt. Occasionally asking if I wanted Coca-Cola, desperate for the business. It was warm and uninviting, coming from a dirty container so I politely declined. My stomach was in 'rag-order' (military speak for not good!) and I felt more like throwing up, dehydration kicking in so I settled for more water from my Camelbac and waited for Mark with a child or two holding my hand seeking attention and a Tuareg or two seeking cigarettes. .
Mark arrived all hot and sweaty and so did the ferry. The same roll on/ roll off type as before and we boarded for the 45 minute trip down river to the town. Our entry to Timbuktu was punctuated with photo opportunities for seeing the 'Centre ville, Tombouctu' sign was an opportunity not to miss and the sight of the Saharan dunes encroaching on the town gave it a real sense of being on the edge of nowhere. The Sahara is another challenge in my eyes. To be able to cross it whether by bike or even camel is something that allures me and is an adventure in itself, one day Geoff, one day.

The town itself is a bit of a disappointment. I didn't expect Shangri-La but something a little better than a dusty outpost seemingly forgotten save for the tourists and the Tuareg traders. I suspect again it's another subsidised town where people are paid to live there and keep it alive but I was here and going to make the best of it. So I spent the next 3 days exploring the market and meeting up with some pretty cool people. Mick, a Scottish postman from Aberdeen on a trip by buses and public transport around West Africa. An older guy, 50's with a big bushy beard looking rather like father Christmas, a kind and gentle fellow. He told Mark and I a story he's heard about a guy, who throughout West Africa was having some strange adventures on his own with a motorcycle. This guy was 6 foot tall, big build and has been robbed in Mauritania, arrested in Senegal and was having some crazy times. Mark and I looked at each other hearing this and realised IT WAS ME!! He'd come across people on our route and had been picking up stories on the way, obviously with some exaggeration. By this stage I was 7' tall, an ex high ranking officer in the army, massively built, etc, etc.... HA HA HA, I did laugh! It was good to put the stories right and was nice to catch up with a Scotsman as I do love the place.


One thing that dawned on me whilst in Timbuktu was the way my life had become up to this point, the actions I had done and some that I'd not done. Here I am listening to a guy who'd heard all about me, having never met me but the stories he'd heard and the mental picture he'd thought up and then, out of the blue we met in a dusty bar on the edge of town. Did I dash the ideas in his head with the truth of just being a normal person or was it better for him to continue with the picture he'd built? Embellished by the retelling of stories as Chinese whispers always does. I ended up thinking back to my past life prior to the trip and it hit me, I had made some grave errors in judgement and I couldn't shake the thoughts out of my head and realised as to why I wasn't enjoying the experience of the journey as it was troubling me and had only just surfaced. It was to bother me for some time till I took action and resolved the matter, come to a decision. So my quest for answers became the priority and I wasn't to rest till It was resolved. It perturbed my that here I was hearing about myself and was vainly thinking about myself in the light of others.
So my departure from Timbuktu, the fabled city but only in name became a hurried affair, my head full of thoughts and scenarios, emails to write and answers to receive. I attacked the route back to Douentza with a fervour, a man on a mission, one goal in mind, riding recklessly through the piste, the sand traps, the corrugations, not stopping to rest but looking forward to an answer. Needing it, demanding it, never looking at the speedo but knowing it's high, 60kph,70, 90, 100+, way too high for a loaded bike, something's gotta give and it did. I crashed out 50kms from the end of the piste, hitting a long sand trap going way too fast! The sudden rush of panic trying to dump as much speed as possible but it was too late, I was committed and there's no way off slowing down enough to control what is an inevitable crash! After slewing and snaking the back end of the bike, it's weighted arse having a life of it's own, twisting and protesting it finally gave up. Like a horse that spent it's life being whipped ceaselessly, uncared for by it's owner but demanded of more and more each time, it threw me off in spectacular style in a thorn bush and dumped itself on the ground. Shrieking and kicking before calming for a moment then dying. The horse gave up, my demands too great.
Sounds cool but I'm not writing a 'Western' here, In reality I'd messed up, rode the sand too quickly and as Mark would put it 'STFFC' 'Speed to fast for conditions' and obviously the dumb riders ability too! I miscalculated the throttle, opened and closed it at the wrong time, my mind not on the road, mistiming badly and jammed the front wheel into a pile of sand which sucked all the bikes forward energy and propelling me over the handlebars!
I was an idiot and I knew it. I could have seriously damaged the bike badly and more importantly myself. I laid for an instant, jacket and leg studded with thorns, the sound of cracking of breaking twigs, adrenaline and shock kicking in and waited for the pain. The chances of a leg or limb giving out, broken should I try to stand filled me with dread. I did a mental check of myself and stood up. The relief of everything as it should be gave me joy, so much I jumped up and down to check. Not the best way of a diagnosis but it worked. Quickly righting the bike made more difficult by the soft sand it was embedded in I looked over to the right and saw a tourist truck deviating from it's course towards me. They'd seen the crash and I felt foolish. Coming to my aid, cameras ready, the tourists all chattering away at what exciting thing they'd just seen stopped 50' to my front. Approaching the truck and gabbled away that I was fine, thanking them for stopping and jumped back on the bike, “Sorry, can't stop.... in a race!, bye!” I felt dumb, wanting to be away as soon as I could, hoping the bike would start and no obvious damage seen I set off at a more ginger pace looking for a quiet corner to lick my wounds and feel silly.
I got to my destination, the bike and I fine, sent off my email and felt a sudden numbness. What had I just done? I looked at the watch and realised, what had taken me over 6 hours to get to Timbuktu had been done in 3 hours 20! Wow! The risks I had given myself and the trouble I could have placed on Mark should I have injured myself or the bike. An irresponsible action for I could have sent the email the next day or that evening. I should ride more carefully in future and be more considerate to my riding partner.

Posted by geoffshing at December 20, 2008 04:17 PM GMT

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