Inside the mud walls of the Great Mosque in Djenne it is dark, quiet and cool. The exact opposite of the harsh mid-morning market scene outside. Bustling, bright and bloody hot. We slip quietly through the dark, earthen corridors, the internal sanctum of the mosque, bare feet on soft sand floor. Vastly impressed by the scale of the mud adobe architecture, cameras click and whirr. Shhh! Quietly, on tiptoes, infidels, such as ourselves, are not allowed inside the great Mosque of Djenne. But on rare mornings such as this, before the Imam arrives, it is possible to arrange a quick tour for a few thousand CFAs. Mali's grinding poverty, and savvy entrepreneurs tend to win out over strict religiosity in this landlocked country on the edge of the Sahara. Our enterprising guide Mohammed Cinq (Mohammed Number 5 as he calls himself in English) hurriedly ushers us through the mosque. I am lost in wonder, fiddling with the light settings on my camera, following slowly at the back of the group. Suddenly my travel companions are rushing back towards me. Mohammed Cinq at the back, looking flustered and waving his arms, his gold bouba flapping.

'Move!' He whisper-shouts over their shoulders. 'The Imam! The Imam is coming!'

Silent, tourist assassins, we shuffle our way back to the back entrance. Unable to stop, even for a last photograph. Leaving only our infidel footprints on the soft sand floor. At the mosque's back door, where we left our shoes, our shoes have been taken. All, except those of my companion, fellow travel writer Chris Marais.

'What's wrong with my shoes?' He asks plaintively.

Mohammed Cinq looks troubled. He leads us out of the Mosque's courtyard to safety and insists we wait there for him. He collars one of the Imam's sons and begins an inquest into our missing shoes. Minutes pass. Chris is deeply troubled why his shoes failed to make the grade of footwear captured by the Imam. Did the Imam think they looked too stinky? Too old? Did he not like the brand? Could he not carry them all, or do they simply look like another pair of pious Muslim takkies?

Eventually Mohammed comes back smiling; the Imam's son clutching our shoes with a naughty grin. They had to sneak into the Imam's office and steal them back. You get the feeling it's all just a bit of fun in Djenne. Just a minor infidel incident.

Mali is a rock and a hard place. Ancient and inaccessible. Somewhere North East of Senegal and South West of Mauritania, pinched between Burkina Faso, Niger and Morocco. Relentless Sahel, the scrub land that verges the Sahara. Stifling, baobab marked desert with a long, shallow river winding through it. It's not like Bali, which comes on quick and sweet like the scent of frangipani. Mali takes time to appreciate. It took me days to figure out what I was actually doing here, and start enjoying the ride. Ostensibly it was a press junket. BMW South Africa were donating a car to the South African - Mali project. A Thabo Mbeki inspired NEPAD initiative, funded largely by our Arts and Culture department, to save and protect the ancient manuscripts of the Timbuktu library. The manuscripts are a relic of Africa's intellectual heritage. Presenting examples of written scholarship, across a variety of subjects including Islamic law, jurisprudence, geology, music, astronomy and theology. The 700 000 odd parchments suggest a culture of intellectual pursuit, dating back to the Songhay Empire around 800 AD. This is a fantastic coup for the 'African Renaissance' and rebuffs the old, racist 'oogabooga' misconception that the African continent had nothing to offer by way of intellectualism or even written languages. And so we South Africans are funding a state-of-the-art research centre and museum in the Timbuktu's shifting Saharan sands, to the tune of around R50 million. To assist in this effort BMW South Africa sponsored a zuped-up-for-the-desert X5 luxury 4x4 to help with the day to day running of the Ahmed Baba Insititute, (Ahmed Baba being the pre-eminent scholar whose writings form the core of the Timbuktu library) in gathering and protecting these ancient parchments. Yours truly was going to Timbuktu - and not just in my mind or in someone else's invitation to piss off to nowhere in particular, like Timbuktu. I was going to the actual physical spot on the planet, the old trading oasis in the Sahara known as Timbuktu, in search of antiquities... like Indiana Jones.

Oh Bamako

Mali is a country founded by French colonial hubris, but before that there were the many trading empires working the old salt route between the East and the West, running alongside the river Niger. Canoes came from the South and camels from the North. Malians are your traditional middlemen. The market in Bamako offers a fantastic example of this trading nous . You walk out of the hotel and are immediately swamped by people trying to sell you things. Dogon artworks, Malian cotton clothing, trinkets, hats. But what I really want is a fine, stylish and Malian bouba . made from the finest, famous, organic cotton. At the market the ban bans (entrepreneurial facilitators) quickly suss me out. Take me into a shop to look at fabrics. Promise to make me the bouba of my dreams and extract all the money I have (45 Euros) and some of that of my travelling companions, too. I leave without a bargain, but some nice clothing I doubt I will ever wear, unless I end up occupying a position of political power.

Early morning early and we are hurtling across the flat dry Sahel towards the mud city of Djenne. Through Segou, a busy part of the straight road cutting through endless dry land, cultivated in rows and waiting patiently for the short, wet season. Baobabs and small villages typified by exquisite adobe mud buildings. Stop for lunch and avoid the hamburger a cheval (horseburger), wash it down with Coke, American champagne. Ride on towards Djenne and the ferry across the mighty Bani river, which actually surrounds and makes an island of the city of Djenne when it floods, rarely. The Bani is slow and languid. The ferry does a short 50 meter Yamaha powered dash from side to side. Just short of Djenne we stop to take in the archaeological site of Djenne Jeno - the old city. This is the site of the previous town started in 250 BC and abandoned for the current Djenne in around 800 AD with the Songhay. It looks like a vast gravel strewn mound, but on closer inspection you notice the gravel is actually shards of smashed terracotta pottery. As you walk around the site you discover whole pot rims, and bigger shards with patterns. Pottery was like their plastic. The detritus left behind. In one section our guide (a friendly Islamic scholar on a motorbike, dressed immaculately in a white bouba ) points out rusting pieces of metal slag, the site of the blacksmith. In another section he calls, 'la cimitiere' we see how they buried their dead in large terracotta jars. In a smashed jar you can clearly make out a skull and some broken bones.

'How old are these bones?' I ask.

'The latest they can be is 800AD, but maybe a thousand years earlier.' He answers sagely.

Anywhere else in the world there would be hundreds of archaeology students cordoning off areas and scratching in the dirt with those little picks and brushes. But here in Mali there is a herd of goats eating the anaemic layer of grass on the riverbank and a small rusty billboard proclaiming the site of Djenne Jeno. Indiana Jones could fill his pockets, and probably has.

The mosque in Djenne is not just a world heritage site and fabulous postcard picture; it is an important Islamic educational centre. People send their children from all over Mali and as far away as Burkina Faso, Mauritania and Senegal for religious instruction. Daily, scholars sit and transcribe verses from the Qu'ran onto wooden tablets for younger students to learn. By night there is a quiet cacophony as children sit and sing their verses to themselves, committing the Qu'ran to memory under the streetlights in the town square.

Dogon It

The flat, sandy Malian landscape starts to break up. The road is characterised by more corners, rocky outcroppings appear in the distance. Then the roads get rough, bouncing over rocks and pebbles, down riverbeds, through valleys. The villages are characterised by complimentary mud and stone architecture. Riverbeds are dug into terraces and planted with spring onions, offering neat squares of deep green that stand out against the dry browns. This is Dogon country. Mali's flat desert gives out to the Bandiagara escarpment. The Sahel suddenly falls away in a moment of ecstatic rockface. The desert sands gather below - stretching out towards Burkina Faso.

This is escarpment is where the Dogon escaped Tuareg and Moroccan Islamic persecution. Here they could at best defend themselves and at worst, hide. All the woodwork is carved in the Dogon style - much of which is available, for a price, at the Rosebank flea market. The remarkable thing about the Dogon is that the wood carvings are not curios, implements. They have utility, and are used daily. This is the Dogon way. There are no plastic substitutes. Throughout Mali, there are very few signs of 'global creap' or Western capitalist influence. Few billboards, shopping malls, boutiques or quick-shops, cafes nor coke signs. Amongst the Dogon it is more so. It is the most in tact indigenous culture I have ever visited. People carve their doors out of custom, not curio. Proud and artistic, even the handles of the catapults the young boys use to shoot at monkeys are ornately carved. Snotty nosed kids run up offering effigies of plastic Dogon warriors made out of the sole of someone's old flip flop. They demand presents, sweeties or pens. When none are forthcoming they settle for simply holding your hand, and laughing, taking much pleasure showing you round their village, pointing at things and describing them in the Dogon tongue.

Tellem Again

But perhaps the most startling and awesome antiquities on display are the ancient Tellem houses and towers that perch above the Dogon villages, stretching high up into the rock face. The Tellem people were displaced by the Dogon's migration to the escarpment, leaving behind mud and stone structures, storage facilities and homes built in and around caves in the cliff face. Huge, complex citadels hewn in the rock, some of them at least 200 meters above the ground. Safely out of reach of plunder and destruction. These magical settlements look down upon the Dogon villages like ancient, astounding architectural custodians. The Tellem, I am told, are hunter-gatherers, much like our San, and would spend little time in their cliff-face homes. Using them to store food and grain, and as safe places for having children, and treating the ill. The Dogon also claim the Tellem were a magical people, who had the gift of flight.

'They knew the magical languages and could perform many great spells and accomplishments.' Explains our Dogon guide Batrou. 'They are magic people.'

To Timbuktu

From Mopti the Sahel degrades gradually into shifting beige sand dunes. Baobabs become less common and the road deteriorates, and yet the Niger flows on. We enter the Sahara proper. Timbuktu rises in the distance like a mirage. The entrance aptly symbolised by a MaliTel cellphone billboard: 'Bienvenue a Timbuktu'. The Saharan sands shift through the streets and pile up alongside buildings. The main road is like driving on a beach. Timbuktu seems in a constant state of improvement. Half finished buildings line up alongside concrete and mud structures, among them, but on a much larger scale, the South Africa - Mali Project's museum and research centre.

Aziz Pahad and the Malian Minister of Education arrive on the scene among a sandstorm of dignitaries and diplomatic protocol. Keys to the immaculate BMW X5 are handed over ceremoniously, before we all proceed to a nearby hotel for a lunch of roasted goat.

Timbuktu was described aptly when Bob Geldof commented: 'Is that it?' Part anti-climax, part unpretentious Saharan trading post. The place has an air of vagabond and banditry; trade and commerce in the desert. Dark blue turbans and boubas are a Timbuktu uniform. This is the land of Tuareg, strong, sweet tea poured from height and camels.

Having circumnavigated the town twice, sampled the cuisine and taken many photographs Timbuktu lies open like a smashed piggy bank. As the sun dips Westwards and we prepare for departure. I take a moment to breathe in all that is Timbuktu. Once here, on the hot Saharan sand, it's hard to understand what all the fuss is about. There is nothing really going for Timbuktu but it's complete inaccessibility. It's a sparkling word on a world traveller's checklist; a mysterious, connotative gemstone that rolls off the tongue and conjures exotic fantasy. Timbuktu seems more tangible in legend and whimsy than physical reality. But soon, Timbuktu will boast a world class museum and research facility that may serve to rekindle its academic heritage and create a tourist attraction beyond simply visiting the inaccessible. And of course, we all have some ownership in this cause because it is our tax, gentle reader, that has created this museum in the shifting sands of Timbuktu.

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