Stranded in Douentza, it was not reassuring to actually see vultures circling high above me

"A NOTE FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF TIMBUKTU "

This is an extract from a letter I sent to my mother. It begins in September 1996 in a small village called Kidal, in Northern Mali, on the edge of the Sahara Desert.

Last night, I was given a Tamasheq name, as the locals here cannot pronounce my 'difficult' name. I am now known as 'Entetradin'. I wish I could say it means 'Dances with wolves' or 'Stands with a fist' or 'Hung like a bear', but it actually has no meaning at all. So why do all the locals laugh when I tell them my new name?

I spent last night out in the desert with a family of Tamasheqs and their sheep and goats. They made 'tagella'- flat bread baked in the ground- and a strange, warm custard-like thing with lumps of cheesy stuff in; and a meat dish that I didn't go near. We drank lots of strong, sweet tea, and they showed us some of their party tricks, one of which involved tying me to a two metre long pole and watching me try to escape. Everyone else enjoyed that!

The tamashek couple, making tea, strong and sweet, just the way you'd better like it, cause that's the way you're gonna get it

Next week, he said he'll take me on camels to a special place he knows where there's caves with ancient writing on the walls. 'Sounds great but it's about sixty kilometres away, and I don't know if I'm up to a camel ride of that length. We'll see.

I've been here a week now, and what an amazing place. No running water, no electricity, a mail delivery every few weeks, and until very recently no telephone. It's fascinating to see how people live within the constraints of their environment.. The average daily wage for a worker is about $2. The tailor who made my latest outfit charged about $3 for what would have taken him most of the day.

Akli, the tailor, hard at work in his open air 'shop'

Fortunately, we have a few solar panels on the roof, which provide enough power for lighting, and they have a gas cooker and a gas fridge.

I'll have lots of stories to bore you with in a few months when the money runs out, but for now it's just this page to let you know I'm still alive.

Donkeys in the marketplace, loaded with a precious desert commodity- firewood

Timbuktu is that place that you've always heard of, but never knew where it was. I didn't think it was even a real place; I thought it was just a word made up by my father as somewhere he wanted to send me when I misbehaved. Now I find myself just a few hundred kilometres from this mystically named town, situated in central Mali, just west of the Niger river. Most foreigners who visit Timbuktu take the ferry steamer between Mopti and Gao, which stops for a few hours at Kabara. From there, it's a quick taxi ride to Timbuktu and you have time to take a handful of Japanese style 'been there, done that' photographs, and make it back to the river before the ferry leaves you behind. Astonishingly, many reports indicate that this is almost long enough to appreciate what Timbuktu has to offer. Once an important trading centre and home to over a hundred thousand people, the town's economy is now propped up by tourism, enough to keep about

And I wonder if it were a few years ago, would I have joined these tourists? ..paying five times too much to be whisked into Timbuktu in a taxi, running from one sandy street to another, clicking at every vantage point and every sign with that magical name, in order to cross yet another name off some endless imaginary list of places one should see? Perhaps.

But I am a different person today to that excitable, naive twenty-three year old who boarded the Continental Airlines jet almost five years ago. To that disillusioned young man with the words of a Phil Collins song pounding inside him as the plane eased into slow motion on the tarmac; "I'm never coming back!" they heard him cry, and I believed him. And his fists clenched, and he knew this was the best thing he had ever done. To the smooth faced boy who stood at the edge of Lake Taupo, smiling proudly for his first photo outside Australia, the first recorded image of a trip that he could never have dreamed would take him half a decade.

Whatever came later, and whatever is still to come, that photo will always be the first I see when I open my album. At a glance, it brings back the exhilaration that soared through me with every step back in those early days. It is far more than just a reminder; I don't just remember- I relive. I can feel my pulse climb as I look into the face on that 6"x4" glossy.

My first photo, on my first trip

I swear I can feel the tiny specks of drizzle landing on my face, and smell the fresh wetness in the wind blowing in over that huge lake, and I take comfort in the warmth of that red Powers Bitter sweatshirt in the photo. Whatever happened to that sweatshirt?

It's not that I don't get excited any more. It's just that different things excite me now, and in different ways. Dropping in on old friends in all corners of the world. Wandering the familiar streets of London, and marvelling at how comfortable I feel in this huge city on the opposite side of the planet from everything that I once considered 'home'. Managing to successfully negotiate my way through countries where I don't speak the language, and even making friends and holding 'conversations' without a common language. Looking forward to receiving my mail after five weeks 'incommunicado' in Africa. Returning home unannounced to surprise family and friends. Dreaming about the challenges and opportunities that exist for me when I return to Australia. Dying to get a fax from Makiko tomorrow, telling me whether she wants me to come to Israel to see her before I head home. These are the things that drive me now, not taking photos of signs so I can put in my travel album that I spent forty-five minutes in the legendary town of Timbuktu. It's funny how you stay the same, but how you see things differently.

I don't need to see Timbuktu.

Visit my favourite books page for some recommended reading relating to my time in Mali. Roll your mouse over the cover photo for a brief description. Click for more details, to purchase online at a discounted price from Amazon, or to view other titles. (if you buy a book, or any other product from Amazon, through this link on my site, I get a small commission- even more if you buy the book you clicked on. Go on, buy a book today!)

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