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Timbuktu – It does exist………

by Bob Scott

Bob Scott is semi retired living in Scotland, running a B&B with wife Olive, a horse called Jackie and the laziest dog I know, Jess.  I hope I have half of Bob's enthusiasm when I reach his stage in life.  In January of this year Bob rode his Honda varadero motorbike from Portugal to Timbuktu in Mali………………………and back again, 8,147 miles..

Unloading the bikes in Lisbon.

Strangely I feel that the trip meant more to me over the weeks and months after returning than when actually doing it.  Yes, prior, in the planning stage there was tremendous anticipation, some intrepidation, concerns and alot of excitment.  There is definatley a trip like this in most of us, right place, right time and circumstances play alot in whether we get a chance to act it out.  Thanks to NicK I got that chance.

Then when actually on the trip we are doing what we do best, riding a bike 5/6/700 miles a day soaking up the atmosphere of it all, the sights, sounds, scenery, certainly the smells and the people.  Riding differently to cope with ever changing roads, conditions and circumstances.  Continually making adjustments and decisions to keep you out of trouble, (well almost, but more of that later) because you realise the remotness of it all, on some of the days a wrong move and you could be stranded, trip over.

So as I said it is on your return when in those quiet moments, on your own that you get this fantastic chance to replay all those moments, like a film.  I still go into the dining room where a large map of Africa is opened on the table, a book of Mali, signed by all, my diary, a few photographs and the atmosphere of hundreds of memories, then the "box" springs open and I am once again there.

It was excellent starting from Lisbon down to the ferry at Algeciras, although much like any other continental tour it allowed a slow time start into the whole trip, groups within groups and all that. 

Riding off the ferry we were in Africa, Morocco, definatley worth a return visit.  Although very mediteranean as it should be  it never the less has a different feel.  The scenery and experience of riding South over the Atlas mountains was truy remarkable.  The grin factor of riding all day on very reasonable tarmac roads with hairpin bends for 100 and more miles was one of bikings lifetime bests.  All of a sudden you realise this trip is going to tick so many boxes.  Already you are wanting to go back and do that road again but the anticipation of what is ahead drives you on. Hopefully I will go back and 'play' in Morocco's Atlas mountains one day

Now we turn West and find the Atlantic coast road South with blue rollers crashing close to our right.  It is only recently that some of these roads were built, prior to that if you wanted to go South you drove down the beach. 

Down through Tan Tan the Easterley wind really starts blowing more and more sand across the road left to right from the ever increasing white sand dunes. 

Initially it was just dust blowing and moving across or down the road, at times like riding through dry ice vapour, quite disconcerting as it took away some of your reference points.  Then later as sand fingers appearing across the road.  not a problem to start with because the sand is on the left and we are on one of those ' they drive on the wrong side' sort of roads.  We are in French influenced Africa ( still using Euros )

Eventually the sand is a problem as it stretches right across the road and then begins to broaden,  a few feet is ok as you are through it before you become unstable but more and you soon learn to stand on the pegs, lean back and lighten the front. 

With the sand came the need for different tyres

In truth it was a hellish ride from Tan Tan to Dakhlar, 8 1/2 hours and 550 miles, would I do it again? Of course I would.

Leaving Dakhlar we head for the Mauritanie border, to find it closed, remember the French influence,  we soon learn from lorry drivers that a ten Euro note in your passport works wonders. 

Each town has some architectural wonder to greet you, whether it be archway or camel

Black Africa starts here and I was going to say corruption, but when you earn that little and we are comparitively rich,  I guess it could be called enterprise.  Corruption here is at a much higher level because I am wondering  where all the money has gone that we send out here. 

It is also getting hot now, sand is getting everywhere, yes, everywhere and I start wondering where it is getting to in the bike.  I have now stopped oiling the chain and will run dry, resigned to a new chain and sprockets on return.

Although some had more pressing problems

We are riding the 300 plus miles from Dakhlar to Nouakchott on a tank full of fuel and what you can carry as that is the distance between petrol stations.

The varadero has a handy touch of a dash mounted rolling fuel miles / litres guage.  So I have calculated I need to keep it around 13 miles / litre to get there on the 25 litre tank.  Riding like a tart brings on a whole new meaning , of course the Honda did it, it said so on the tin.


Running East now the terrain gets steadily greener and rocky, huge rocks appear from the floor of the desert, hundreds of feet high, erroded away like Arizona,

Clint could make a movie here.  The greenery from the Niger's irrigation is apparent, God knows what this part of the central belt would be like without the Niger river.  It starts West and should take a short run to the Atlantic if it were not for the mountains, but it starts its long curve running East then South hundreds of miles through several countries, irrigating a huge area.


This now really is Africa, this is what I came to see. Villages of first mud huts then twig walls and roofs, some neat and tidy, others on the busy route full of squalour.  Where is all that money that we send out here?  We stop to buy provisions, locally baked bread, tins of sardines, laughing cow cheese, those French again.

I had long ago decided to be near vegi on this trip as all I had seen were donkies camels and dogs.  Nick was in his element, melons were nice when you found them, we probably paid over the odds for them but for reasons stated earlier, what the hell.

Jason Mardell keeps the kids entertained for a while

Children stick in the mind, they have nothing, when ever you stop, tens of them crowd the bike, we are close on a daily basis to the Dakar rally route maybe some of their clory rubs off on us, they obviosely haven't seen me riding.

They want pens pencils, paper, they strip us bare, these kids are keen to learn.  Where is all that money we send out here?  You can start a war with a packet of chewing gum, we nearly did.

We now cross into Mali into the real green of the Niger and mud twig huts, ye Gods this is Biblical.

We pass women carrying water on their heads, but it is miles and miles since the last village and it was miles before the next surely you cannot carry water that far on a daily basis.  Water is life, everybody has the right to clean drinkable water, where is that money?  You start comparing your own lifestyle to that you are experiencing, the simple act of turning on a tap or closing a window or door to the weather, I can see through these huts.

The roads have deteriorated now to hard packed corrugated red sand with hidden pits of soft sand and then bits of tarmac with wheel sized pot holes, it was these pot holes that would bend my wheel rim on the return journey, it was repaired in an African village. 

Improvisation, the name of the game!

Broken down lorries litter this supply route, we saw lorries with broken backs from over loading, another having it's crank shaft changed!  The repair crew had been camping there for 5 days.  I mentally note to check the bike oil, but then, it is a Honda!!

An alterntive on the return journey was a two day river trip on the Niger, negating the last days riding to Timbuktu

We did make Timbuktu on the 18th day, January 22nd 2007, after a last push of 128 miles on soft sand.  It took 7 hours of riding, averaging 18mph, plus picking the bike up about 6 times.  Give me tarmac and track days any time.

Would I do it again – of course I would.

Now where is that box of memories again and does that map of Africa look a bit smaller?

Thanks to Andy Wilson for pictures and Nick for organising the trip and being an all round good sport.

Bob runs a B&B on the shores of Loch Tay, contact him here: