Apparently, I am not the only person on the planet who is fascinated by the City of Timbuktu in western Africa. While reading the captivating book entitled To Timbuktu, by Mark Jenkins, I quickly discovered the city set aside the vast Sahara has long been a place of historical intrigue and sometimes over-abundant imaginations.
The book, To Timbuktu, primarily documents an attempt by four kayakers from Laramie, Wyoming to safely navigate the mighty Niger River from its headwaters to and through Timbuktu, and then on to its mouth at the Gulf of Guinea. Secondarily, the book describes the historical and almost comically vain attempts to be the first European to safely travel to Timbuktu, Mali and back in the 18th and 19th centuries. The sheer audacity and prejudice of some of these early explorers and their financiers is downright disturbing.
For an urban planner, the book contains descriptive discussions about a number of communities that the kayakers pass through either on foot or by boat. For geographers, adventure seekers, and environmentalists, the book is chock full of interesting personal observations and factoids. But, above all, the book is about a unique and dangerous travel adventure and about taking risks. As noted in the epilogue, taking risks can have unforeseen and potentially tragic consequences.
Despite the impressive achievements of the kayakers, the conclusion left me quite saddened. I guess, it is up to the individual reader whether the accomplishments were worth the risks taken along the way.
Here are some of the interesting observations found in the book:
- “The surface of the river is only the skin, the muscle is underneath. you can’t know this from the shore. you must be out in a small boat; then you know it because you feel it. We are in kayaks, the smallest of vessels. In a kayak you are not above the river, you are inside it, part of it. Water envelopes you and carries you on your voyage.” (pages 1 and 2)
- “Most people believe rivers flow in only one direction. this is not true. Along the margins of a river the water curls back on itself and runs upstream, as if it has forgotten something.” (page 5)
- “Maps encourage boldness. They’re like cryptic love letters. They make anything seem possible….Books are more accurate, but leave less to the imagination.” (page 21)
- “When you think it through to the end, to bring a gun is an act of profound selfishness. You are acknowledging that if push comes to shove, you believe your life is more important than another life — and you are willing to kill to keep it.” (page 37)
- “On the map Keressadji is twelve miles away. but, trail miles and map miles are two different things…maps only tell half-truths. You have to read between the contour lines.” (page 62)
- “Then why no bicycle? Bicycle is beautiful.” (page 63)
- “River miles are like trail miles.” (page 122)
- “…and Rick begins expanding on his idea of the perfect community. It must be a small place, of course. Familial. A few coffee shops. Everybody walks or rides a bicycle. Everybody listens to music or better yet makes their own. Everybody has the time to develop themselves creatively. Lots of village bonhomie. A nice little Left Bank kind of place.” (page 123)
- “I walk to the center of town. The skeletons of automobiles lie like dead animals in what once was a small square…Two-story colonial buildings surrounding the square are vacant…Ruins rising above thatched huts.” (page 143)
- “The city thickens around us. By the time we cross the bridge over the Niger and enter Bamako proper, the air is viscous withe blue fumes and traffic has stalled. Only two-wheeled vehicles are moving. The nimble and the quick.” (page 185)
- “The desert is trying to take back the city, gradually filling it up like an hourglass.” (page 215)
I strongly recommend reading To Timbuktu. It is quite an adventure.