Essakane, scenes from the Sahara

It is cold in the desert at night. Very, very cold. As soon as the sun set, which it does with alarming speed, the temperature plunged, forcing everyone to start adding layers of clothing. Lying in my sleeping bag in a Tuareg tent just before dawn, it was all I could do to convince myself to scramble out of the bag and into some warm clothes, before wandering out into the desert to admire the sunrise and welcome the returning warmth of another day.

Every photographer knows that the light in the early morning and as the sun sets is special. In the desert this seems to be doubly so, with sand dunes and vast open sky proving to be a perfect canvass for the sun to work its magic. Here are some pictures in the Sahara from the Festival au Désert to illustrate this. Sunset…

Woman and her son with camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Woman and her son with camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camels at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Two people sit in the desert at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Two people sit in the desert at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A man walks across he desert at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A man walks across he desert at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg and camel at sunset, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

…followed by the cold desert night…

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Moon over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Campfire in the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Campfire in the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

…followed by the sunrise…

Sunrise over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunrise over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunrise over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sunrise over the desert, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sand dunes, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

Sand dunes, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A man prays on a sand dune, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

A man prays on a sand dune, Sahara Desert, Mali, Africa

The Tuareg, Blue Men of the Sahara

I don’t think I will ever forget the warmth with which, as foreigners, myself and our little band of travellers were received by the Tuareg at the Festival au Désert. Even though this traditional gathering for Tuareg has been open to tourism since 2001, the welcome received is, in my experience, unique. Chatting to people about how accepted foreigners were, a theme emerged: this is the desert, and these are desert people.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

As one Tuareg put it, “Never refuse to allow someone’s camel to drink from your well; you never know when your camel may need to drink from their well.” That seems like a good philosophy for life, but one that is uniquely the product of living in one of the harshest environments on the planet. Cooperation seems to be more than just desirable in the desert, it may be necessary for survival.

The literal translation of the word, Tuareg, means abandoned by god – a title possibly given to them by Arabs who struggled to convert them. They are better known as the Blue Men of the Sahara, because they traditionally wear the indigo tagelmust, or turban, which stains the skin blue. Although the Tuareg practice varying degrees of Islam, they retain many pre-Islamic traditions and beliefs. Strikingly, Tuareg women don’t wear veils and have a great degree of freedom and authority in family and community decision making.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

I feel a bit ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ recalling the Tuareg I met, but it would be wrong to over-romanticise. Historically they have a fearsome reputation, attacking the great Saharan caravans that carried gold, salt, grain and slaves across the desert. With France embroiled in the First World War, the Tuareg rose up against colonial rule in 1915-16. More recently, there has been an armed uprising in this region since Malian independence in 1960. The Tuareg continue to struggle for independence from Mali (albeit an uneven struggle against a Malian military supplied by France and the United States).

Despite a new peace accord, the National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (the name for the Tuareg homeland) remains armed and active, and separatist sentiment continues to run through the region. This situation is complicated by the Tuareg diaspora; there are up to one million Tuareg living in Mali, Mauritania, Niger, Algeria and Libya. Many Tuareg don’t identify with their own governments and are seeking varying degrees of autonomy – all of which has been met with resistance.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

That said, it is impossible not to be affected by the dignity and warmth of the Tuareg, and that is even before you’ve heard their music. If there is something sublimely beautiful about the vast Sahara Desert, it is doubly so for those who inhabit it. The image of brightly dressed Tuareg, riding their camels against a backdrop of golden sand, is seared into my memory.

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

One day there were some dramatic camels races, an event taken very seriously by the many camel enthusiasts amongst the crowd. I’d never seen a camel in full flight before – no wonder they inspired fear in people when Tuareg attacked travellers in the Sahara. Sitting on a sand dune watching this semi-martial display, memories of reading about the fearsome Tuareg, fighting the French Foreign Legion in the novel Beau Geste, inevitably popped into my head.

Tuareg preparing to race camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg preparing to race camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg racing camels, Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

The Festival au Désert, Malian music in the Sahara

The Festival au Désert is possibly the most atmospheric music festival anywhere in the world. With a backdrop of the towering sand dunes of the Sahara Desert, it has a truly dramatic setting unmatched by any other festival I know of; it showcases the best musicians from Mali and West Africa; and it attracts people, from all over the world, to an event that is the living expression of the culture of the nomadic Tuareg who inhabit this desert landscape.

Signpost to Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Signpost to Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

It is a tragedy then, that when Islamic extremists took control of this region in 2012 and imposed Sharia Law, the 2013 Festival au Désert was cancelled. When I went to the festival four years ago it was held at Essakane 70km into the desert, and it was the experience of a lifetime. In 2010 the festival moved to the outskirts of Timbuktu due to security fears. Hopefully, the festival will return again to its traditional desert home. When it does, it will be a symbol of the resilience of the people of this region.

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg arrive on camels at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg woman at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg woman at Essakane, home of the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

For anyone interested in the musical traditions of West Africa, or who just likes beautiful music, the Festival au Désert is a necessary pilgrimage. Traditional Tuareg music is pure voice-and-percussion, hand clapping accompanied by soulful vocals full of meaning and cultural richness. Although Tuareg musicians use traditional drums and stringed instruments, the most famous musical export from this region the music of Tinariwen, the internationally famous and Grammy Award Winning Tuareg guitar band…here’s a taster from their Aman Iman – Water is Life album.

Main stage at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Main stage at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg watch the show at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg watch the show at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

The Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

The Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

The main festival stage comes alive at night, but the real joy of the festival is coming across musicians playing amongst the sand dunes during the day. Sometimes people are out in the open playing, while at other times you’ll walk past a Tuareg tent packed with people listening to (and joining in with) musicians. Several times I was beckoned inside a tent to listen to some extraordinary music.

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

To give an idea of some of the music, I’ve added some tracks from Takoba (the name for a traditional Tuareg sword), a group I heard in a tent one morning as I wandered around…the music was recorded in a makeshift studio and, unless you happened to be there, its unlikely that you’ll ever get a chance to hear this music.

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Musicians perform at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

IMG_5609

As well as some of the most mesmerising music you’ll ever hear, the festival is a gathering for Tuareg from all over this vast region. Although 4x4s are pretty common, mainly bringing tourists, they are far outnumbered by camels ridden by brightly clothed Tuareg. Throughout the festival camel riding Tuareg can be seen everywhere, and at times they gather to race the camels and participate in other traditional activities. It makes for an extraordinary experience.

Tuareg on camels at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Tuareg on camels at the Festival au Désert, Mali, Africa

Timbuktu, the ancient crossroads of Africa

Timbuktu. The name is redolent with history; a name which evokes the extraordinary kingdoms and cultures of ancient Africa, and has been synonymous with the concept of distance and isolation for over one thousand and six hundred years. Its a long way to Timbuktu, after all. Even today, the name conjures images of adventure and daring-do with a backdrop of towering sand dunes populated by turbaned Tuareg.

Timbuktu, teetering on the edge of the Sahara Desert, has almost mythical status. Situated at the crossroads between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa, it is where great trade routes converged. Gold, salt, ivory, cattle, grain and slaves passed through Timbuktu in great camel caravans, making this improbable city very wealthy. Much more importantly, this is a city where ideas were exchanged and a unique culture flourished.

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Djinguereber Mosque, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Timbuktu became a centre of Islamic learning. At its peak, there were one hundred and eighty Koranic schools with more than 25,000 students in the city. It was the hub for the dissemination of Islamic scholarship throughout Africa, a fact born witness today by the 700,000 ancient manuscripts which are housed in the library of the Ahmed Baba Institute. Some of these documents are over eight hundred years old and are slowly, methodically being restored and saved digitally.

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

In the 5th century Timbuktu was little more than a village, but it’s ‘golden age’ came in the 15th and 16th centuries with the construction of several beautiful mosques. In the 15th century it was home to 100,000 people. In 1500, Timbuktu had a similar population size to London; Rome, the centre of Christian learning, had a population of only 38,000. Although, European populations were still rebounding after the Black Death.

Camels in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Camels in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Despite its size and status, by the 17th century Timbuktu was in decline. European traders were sailing down the coast of Africa making overland trade routes through the Sahara largely obsolete; as trade shifted, Timbuktu became less-and-less important. For centuries it largely fell off the map, but its legendary status as the ‘city of gold’ continued to act as a magnet for adventurers. European explorers were desperate to be the first see and report on the splendours of the fabled city.

Market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Buckets in the market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Buckets in the market, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

House, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

House, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The problem with reaching Timbuktu was that the Tuareg tribes were hostile to outsiders, particularly non-Muslims in search of riches. Death awaited anyone foolhardy enough to try to cross the desert to reach it. Yet the fabled wealth of Timbuktu proved a powerful motivator for Europeans. Even into the 19th century, Timbuktu remained a byword for the mysterious and the inaccessibility of the African interior. It wasn’t until 1826 that the first European set foot in the city, and only after travelling for a year across the desert.

Major Alexander Gordon Laing was a British Army Officer and a Scottish explorer who, in an attempt to beat the French to Timbuktu, set out across the Sahara Desert in 1825 with the support of the British Government. He had a torrid time; his caravan was attacked by Tuareg and he was wounded several times, losing a hand at one point. Despite this, he made it to Timbuktu and became the first European to see Africa’s El Dorado. He stayed in Timbuktu for thirty eight days, but, was murdered when trying to leave the city.

Plaque commemorating Major Alexander Gordon Laing, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Plaque commemorating Major Alexander Gordon Laing, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Two years after Laing’s death, the Frenchman, René Caillié, became the first European to reach Timbuktu and return alive. His reward was a prize of 10,000 Francs. Unlike Laing, who had written letters claiming Timbuktu was a city of great wealth, Caillié told the bitter truth. By 1827, Timbuktu was a dusty and unimportant backwater, retaining none of its former wealth or glory.

Timbuktu remains a dusty backwater today, although its legend as a mystical ancient city still lures people from around the world. Reaching Timbuktu after a week of travel, I felt some the disappointment René Caillié experienced when he reached the city – his journey took a year, but he was so disappointed by what he found he only stayed for two weeks. Today, Timbuktu is home to 20,000 people; its mud-walled buildings and dusty streets feel somewhat desolate and anticlimactic. The famous mosques are still there, but the town seems in danger of being consumed by the sands of the Sahara.

The desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

The desert outside Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Monument to a ceasefire between Tuareg and Malian troops, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Monument to a ceasefire between Tuareg and Malian troops, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Yet, in the week before and after the Festival au Désert, it springs into life as musicians from all over Africa, and tourists from all over the globe, converge on the city. Hotels and bars have live music almost every night, and the market place has a buzz of activity as people stock up on provisions for several days in the desert. Most importantly, I was able to get a shower for the first time in four days. It was worth coming to Timbuktu just for that.

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Children in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Children in the street, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Street scene, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

 

In 2012, Timbuktu was captured by Islamic fundamentalists, who brought terror and instituted Sharia Law. Although now liberated by a combination of French and Malian troops, many of those who fled the city have yet to return. The Islamists banned music, punished people for minor infractions with public beatings and beheadings, and destroyed the shrines of Muslim saints because they belong to the Sufi traditions of Sunni Islam. It will be a long time before the city returns to normal, many of the Tuareg refugees fear the Malian army as much as the fundamentalists.

Sunset, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa

Sunset, Timbuktu, Mali, Africa