Morocco to Timbuktu

BBC Two (2 x 60 mins)

Timbuktu - a place so mysterious, mythical and far, far away that many are unsure it even exists. Alice Morrison, Arabist, writer, explorer and Marrakech resident, follows what was once one of the world’s richest trading networks, across North Africa from the top of Morocco to the fabled sandstone city of Timbuktu.

Standing at the crossroads between North and Sub-Saharan Africa, and straddling the vast Sahara Desert and the great River Niger, this legendary trading post was founded over a thousand years ago, and its wealth was built on two precious commodities – gold and salt.

Over the centuries, caravans with thousands of camels passed regularly between Timbuktu and Morocco. They were led across the deadly trans-Saharan ‘salt roads’ by a desert tribe called The Tuareg who still patrol the desert today.

Travelling by any means possible - camel, donkey and sometimes just on foot, Alice’s journey will take her deep into the history, culture and civilisation of both ancient and modern North Africa.

Setting off from Tangier, Europe’s gateway to Africa, Alice learns how gold was in high demand in North Africa to be minted into coins and adorn palaces. Its source was the gold mines of sub-Saharan Africa and so the routes across the desert were forged.

She passes through the Islamic city of Fes, home of the world’s oldest university, where she stays in a caravanserai, the ancient traders’ version of a motel with mule and camel parking, and helps prepare the merchant’s dish of the day, camel meatballs.

She catches the Marrakech Express to the other Northern terminus of trans-Saharan trade, the great market town of Marrakech. Here she gets her hands dirty learning ancient methods of making leather. And in the grand square, Djemaa El Fnaa, she hears tales of the traders of old and their perilous travels across the Sahara.

She continues on foot, trekking across the mighty Atlas Mountains dotted with Berber villages - the Berbers, or Amazigh, are the indigenous people of Morocco. On the other side of the Atlas, Alice discovers ancient caves of salt, the commodity which gave the salt roads their name. Further south, the valleys are lined with Casbahs, fortresses where the traders could stay in safety along the route with their valuable goods.

In the barren landscape of the Jebel Saghro, she enlists the help of Berber nomads. They still graze their animals there and live the same traditional lifestyle. They help her on her way to the ancient city of Sijilmasa, whose ruins sit on the edge of the great Sahara Desert. It’s a lost city, which was once a great trading post, a sanctuary for merchants arriving after the long trek across the Sahara from Timbuktu.

In the second and final episode of this Arabian adventure, explorer Alice Morrison is in the vast Sahara, three and a half million square miles of desert, on an epic camel trek over the dunes on her journey to Timbuktu.

Alice heads West to the desert towns Tamegroute and Guelmim. Guelmim was home to Africa’s largest camel market centuries ago, supplying the merchants for their caravans across the desert. There’s still a bustling livestock market, but Alice finds only a small posse of camels. The salesmen tell her now they’re mainly sold for food. The days of majestic camel caravans are over.

Border controls mean Alice must fly the last leg into Timbuktu itself on a UN flight. This ancient city was turned into one of the most dangerous places in the world after an incursion by Islamic extremists in 2012. It lasted a year, and now UN soldiers keep a fragile peace in the city, having pushed the insurgents just a few miles back into the desert.

When Alice finally reaches the City of Gold, Alice relives its glorious past with a visit to its world famous mosques, the last surviving treasures of a bygone era. In the oldest of them, the Djinguereber mosque, she hears the tale of Mansa Musa, Mali’s greatest king and the richest man in history. As the legend goes, he passed through Timbuktu on a pilgrimage to Mecca with a caravan of thousands of camels, all laden with gold.

The legendary gold is now long gone. War and the passing of time have sapped Timbuktu’s wealth. Tuaregs frequent the city; they were the nomads of the Sahara but the desert has become too dangerous for them.

Although Timbuktu is no longer what it once was, Alice celebrates the legend of this city at a party with her newfound Tuareg friends. When the city was occupied, all music was forbidden; now the irrepressible spirit of the desert people is free to express itself again.