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Drones and AQIM

“Haven’t been to RIM/Mali/Tim since 2003/4, but as Chris mentions the route east of Tidjikja to Nema is pretty remote. As effective as Op Serval has been, history has taught us that any remnants of AQIM [Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] are very probably splintered just out of reach of the Mali forces. The fact that the French asked for and got US drone assets last year for reconnaissance means that AQIM were pushed a long way out from Gao/ Tessalit/ Kidal/ Ifoghas. How much of a problem they are and if you would bump into them East of Nema and across into West Mali is anyone’s guess, but running into these guys will cost you your vehicle or worse, they are always looking for new vehicles—“

“Are we really having a wedding conversation that includes the word AL-Qaeda?” I interrupted Rick as he read aloud a response to a question he’d posted on a overlanding forum about a route we were interested in.  Most people go to Hawaii to get married, lie on the beach, snorkel with pretty fish. Us? Somewhere along the line we thought it was a good idea to tie the knot in Timbuktu.  Since then we’ve been through several stages of excitement and despondency.  Mostly despondency.

Firstly, a geography lesson. Apologies to those who know this already, but given that not so long ago I thought Africa was a country and California a city, I’ll assume there’s at least one person out there who doesn’t know that Timbuktu (translated in English to The Middle of Nowhere) is in Mali, and Mali spans a decent part of the Sahara and bleeds into sub-Saharan Africa. There are many ways to get to Mali. Unfortunately most of them involve dying.  If you look at a map of Africa you’ll see Mali on the middle-West-ish side, surrounded by the following countries.  When you search for them on WikiTravel most are accompanied by the big red box with WARNING DO NOT TRAVEL in red capital letters.

Algeria: WikiTravel WARNING “…Such attacks include bombings, false roadblocks, kidnappings, and ambushes…Additionally, there is the threat of bandits and an al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group (AQIM) in the south of the country…. captured several foreigners including British and Americans. Absolutely no attempt should be made to travel overland to Mali or Niger.”

I’m guessing that’s out then.  How about Niger?

Niger: WikiTravel WARNING “Areas near the Mali border are essentially lawless, and travel near the border is very dangerous…”

I think we get the message.

Alright then, Burkina Faso.  A lovely little country.  No red boxes.  No warning flags.

Burkina Faso: WikiTravel “Is one of the friendliest and, until recently, one of the safest, countries in all of Africa…it is an excellent destination for anyone interested in seeing a beautiful West African country and exploring African culture and music.”

Sounds like a plan, how do we get to Burkina Faso? Oh, through Niger.  Well that’s helpful.  And unless we’re planning on taking a hovercraft, getting to Mali by starting south to north via Cote d’Ivoire, Guinea, or Senegal might be a tad challenging.  And driving up from South Africa is a really, really long way.  That leaves Plan A.  I was really excited about Plan A.  Buy a car in Europe, drive down through France and Spain, cross over into Morocco, Western Sahara, and Mauritania, and head inland to Mali across the Sahara from there.  Unfortunately while Mauritania looked somewhat promising on Wiki —

[“while neither slavery, female genital mutilation, child labour nor human trafficking are rare …the Southern part of the country is filled with friendly people, and they are very welcoming, if a little unused to tourists.”]

— the Canadian government website issued the following warning:

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada advises against non-essential travel to Mauritania due to the rise in terrorist threats against Western interests…bandits… high risk of kidnapping…Westerners are a favourite target…

yada, yada, yada. Depressing, but slightly less useless than the New Zealand government website which contains no international travel information at all, most likely on the presumption that anyone actually from New Zealand would be far happier at home shagging sheep than traversing across the desert dodging terrorists and sandstorms.

So why Timbuktu?  Not because I have a love of danger, that’s for sure.  I get anxious ordering takeout. No, it’s because I have a profound obsession with SAND and I’m happiest when surrounded by absolutely nothing.  For my PayPal friends that were inflicted with my goodbye email a few years ago, recall that one of my goals was ‘drive across the Sahara’.  Well, now it’s time to get off the couch and try to make that dream a reality.  This is proving much, much harder than one would think.

But back to Timbuktu.  In addition to being the magical fantasy-land that everyone knows but no one knows (yes, I realize it’s probably a disappointing poverty-stricken huddle of decrepit ochre buildings – but I like disappointing poverty-stricken decrepit ochre buildings), it is at the end of 1,000 miles of desert driving if you start at Nouakchott in Mauritania and travel inland. And yes, I also realize it’s not quite all the way across the Sahara.  Okay, not even half the way across the Sahara. But getting through Libya, Chad, and the Sudan right now is downright impossible, and achieving half a goal is better than achieving none of one right?  I hope so, because I have hundreds of goals that are half-achieved.

We figured we’d start the blog now and keep a record of all the things we learnt in case it helps other overland travelers in Africa.  This time, no thanks to me, we’re even going to have a website. And if all our plans fall through, well, there’s always City Hall.  But now, back to wedding planning…

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