How often have you heard someone mention Timbuktu when referring to someplace very, very, VERY far away or difficult to get to? Right, me too. Problem is, while I do know it’s a real place, I never quite know where exactly it is. Only that it’s not in my neighbourhood. So, today, through the powers vested in me by Google, I looked it up. And the answer is: Africa!
More precisely, Timbuktu is located in present-day Mali, on the edge of the Sahara desert. And it hails all the way back to the 11th century, when it was once an important trading port between West Africa and North Africa and an important centre of learning.
The mystery of Timbuktu (and the reason many people believe the city either does not exist or cannot be accessed) stems from legendary tales brought back to Europe that described Timbuktu as the African El Dorado. Once travelers reached the city and dispelled this portrayal, the city’s reputation shifted from being fabled for gold to being fabled for its location and mystery. It was, indeed, difficult to reach, with many early expeditions failing to reach the city, being massacred, or succumbing to the elements. In fact, the Geographical Society of Paris once offered a reward to the first European who could reach Timbuktu and return to tell the tale.
Even today, the city remains difficult to reach. The inaugural flight from Algiers to Timbuktu in 1920 was lost and while a successful air strip was established and is in use today, the city is still most commonly reach by camel, motor vehicle, or boat. Passenger ferries operate about once a week during the high water season between August and December, and motor vehicle access is only by dirt roads from neighbouring towns.
Now you know!