The blowing sand rocks our Land Rover as we reach the outskirts of Timbuktu.
Mahkmoud leans over the steering wheel and peers into the hazy lemon yellow that fills our windshield. There is no horizon between earth and sky and I wonder how he can continue to drive with no reference points, yet on he goes with the instinct of a desert nomad. I realize for him, this is normal.
He tells me these storms can last for days but I do not care. We have finally reached one of the oldest and most remote cities on earth, so let it blow.
Pierre and I have come to see the Tuareg, The Blue Men of the Sahara, an ancient Berber tribe that ranges from southern Morocco, through Mauritania, south, here, into eastern Mali. They are regal in their indigo turbans died from the ink of Mediterranean Sea urchins and their flowing blue robes. Astride one of their white camels they are a sight directly out of the “Arabian Nights.”
Later, at the hotel, in hopes to enter their world for a brief time, I ask Halis, my Tuareg guide, if it might be possible to don the blue robes for a quick photo, hoping he will not take offense. “No problem,’ he says as he disappears into the night. An hour later he is back at the door, arms piled high with blue fabric. “We will all travel as Tuaregs,” he says, “It will make things easier.’
I do not know what this means until he points at the wall map. Tomorrow’s destination is his home village of Arawan, a former Foreign Legion outpost, north of Timbuktu in the trackless Sahara. This is an area my guidebook calls “Bandit Country.” It is the only speck on the map for 120 miles in every direction.
I had not bargained for this but cannot pass the opportunity. Halis has shrugged off my query about bandits, saying they will not bother us. My own paranoia will have to decide if this is simply his own hubris, or a statement of fact. We are going into the deep desert not only with, but dressed as Berber nomads.