The long road to Timbuktu

Travel author James Marr in York
Travel author James Marr in York
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James Marr set out to follow in the footsteps of some of the world’s greatest explorers. He talks to Michael Hickling about an African adventure.

When James Marr comes striding into a hotel next door to York Minster there’s no sign of jet-lag or weariness.

There should be, he’s just flown in after completing a punishing 50,000 kilometres road trip, the first part of an overland odyssey up the Americas from Buenos Aires to Nova Scotia.

Fifty-year-old James has learned to adapt to major shifts of time and place after being consumed by wanderlust.

“I am nomadic by nature,” he says. “It’s the perfect antidote to restlessness.”

This York hotel is familiar territory to him – he went to nearby Bootham School and comes from Hull. He embraced the nomad life when he cut the ties of business in his forties. Goodness knows how much distance he has put between himself and Yorkshire in the years since then.

James and his wife Christine had arrived from Peru to spend a couple of weeks in Hull before returning to their car parked securely in Ecuador. Christine, who is French, was running a business in Beverley importing French foods when they met. She is now a nomad too, who combines the roles of co-driver and expedition linguist.

James is at the hotel to talk not about South America but about Africa.

He and his wife, accompanied by two friends, undertook a marathon journey in the footsteps of the great 18th-century explorers of the Dark Continent and James has just published a book about it.

They set out to follow the trail of, among others, Mungo Park, a Scottish surgeon who sought to discover the course of the 4,000 kilometre River Niger which was thought to lead the way to the fabulous riches of Timbuktu.

This semi-mythical “city of gold” excited the interest of European adventurers as early as the 16th-century. Mungo Park made it to the Niger but not to Timbuktu. Trying for a second time, he was robbed, tortured and drowned. Another Scot, Gordon Laing, became the first European to reach the city in 1826 but never lived to tell the tale.

What prompted James and his friends was something more hedonistic than the original search for Africa’s El Dorado. Their destination was to be a rock concert, the Festival in the Desert, near Timbuktu.

The decision was taken over a restaurant meal. “We said, ‘Wow, it would be great to go. Let’s drive’,” says James. “It took 12 to 14 months to get the car and our lives organised.”

James’s working life began in a garage at the age of 16. He later joined the family business of J Marr Ltd, one of the biggest names associated with the Hull deep sea fishing industry. They also owned a fleet of survey and patrol ships, some 14 ships and 300 crew, positioned all over the world. James managed the fleet and sailed on the ships.

“We had a contract with the Mauritania government to patrol the shores and protect the fishermen.” The irony of that fact is not lost on him. As 
they worked to preserve fishing industries on far-off shores, ours went into free-fall.

James and his brother sold off their fleet and then invested in property in Spain. That has also been sold now and he has no need to work.

On the African roads his party found themselves part of a community of “overlanders” who go as they please.

“They travel on anything, even bikes,” says James. “There was a girl who drove on a tractor and I’ve heard of an eccentric German hippy travelling in a hearse.”

In Agadir they arrived on the equivalent of a massive trailer park. “Europeans drive down in the winter and stay here for six months with their satellite dishes, potted plants and hobbies.” It was not at all like an adventure and they did not stay. They wanted more rigour, a test of their endurance and resolve.

James kept a diary and the book he’s distilled from it is a breezy and thoughtful guide to the long and sometimes disappearing road that takes them from landfall in Morocco via Western Sahara, Mauritania, Senegal, Gambia and Mali to Timbuktu, also taking in Burkina Faso and Ghana.

What they had, and what Mungo Park and the explorers did not, was a three-litre Toyota Hilux 4-wheel drive automatic.

Bought nearly new for about £20,000, it was modified by a company in Helmsley, Trek Overland. They added a winch, bigger fuel tanks and other bits and pieces to strengthen the vehicle for an additional £20,000.

The other vital element in the expedition’s success was the presence of “JP”, an old friend of James and a resourceful Frenchman with the engineering skills to get them out of tight corners.Part of JP’s early career was spent refurbishing Land Rovers which he then drove to the Sahara to deliver to his nomadic customers among the Touareg.

His contacts throughout West Africa bring colour to the narrative. At the Gambian border they encounter one of JP’s old pals among the immigration officials called Aboulaye. His previous job had been working as a bouncer at a Leeds nightclub.

Elsewhere they call at an ice-making factory on the coast set up by JP years ago for philanthropic motives so that the local fishermen could keep their catch fresh.

“This trip was a means for JP to catch up with these guys,” says James. “The Touareg friends gave us a veiled warning about where we shouldn’t go in Niger which probably saved our necks.”

They avoid the grisly fate of the explorers whose tracks they follow, indeed they meet no violence at all. They were after all, driving about in a vehicle that was an advertisement for western affluence. Computers, cameras and possibly a stash of currency would be on board.

“Our only means of defence was a pepper spray and perhaps a shovel,” says James. “If you need to resort to weapons you are in a bad way. You have got to keep it light and talk.”

They devised a “danger gauge” based on the level of protection visible at the cash machines and filling stations they arrived at. If the man standing guard had a pistol and a pump-action shotgun (standard practice they discovered later in South Africa) the local threat level was maximum. If the guard was equipped with a bowie knife there was less to fear. One guard they came across was fiddling with a catapult, indicating minimum worries.

James reports on the incongruities of technology as they impact on traditional Africa ways, such as the man on a camel who has a mobile phone but no means of re-charging the battery. They oblige with charging duties numerous times.

James has a novelist’s eye for the telling detail amid the swirl of life. In one city he notes a man travelling on a motorbike with a live sheep strapped to his back, but considers the sheep still retained its dignity. He is aware of how privileged they were on the road. It felt uncomfortable to be the “focus of sly observation, catcalls and aggressive mobs of children”, but he decides not to feel guilty about it. “The best we could do was travel responsibly, with respect for the people we encountered, to deal with them fairly, even it wasn’t always reciprocated.”

He suffered from insomnia and bouts of vertigo and towards the end of the journey he asks himself what personal satisfaction he had derived. “On a spiritual level I felt I was no more tolerant, or patient or sociable than when I set out… As for learning new languages, there was little hope…”

So what pleasure did he find in it? “History, the passing scenery and wildlife are fascinating. Not the people. I’m not a great people person. I found the people in West Africa unbelievably inquisitive. They have no concept of being on their own. They can get a bit too much.”

He would not get in his car and drive to Timbuktu today. It’s too dangerous.

“North east Mali is where al-Qaida are regrouping in the desert. The region is a crossroads for trade in narcotics and people and there’s quite a bit of gangsterism.”

Having returned to Hull from Africa in one piece he and Christine soon discovered an itch to get going again. “We hadn’t got the bug out of our systems.”

The Americas beckoned. This time there is just the two of them on the road. “Living in a small space, I start to get cabin fever. You have to say, ‘I am going to move my leg’ because doing so involves the other person. It gets wearing, having to confer all the time.”

Are they ever tempted to park and stay put? “I do something find a spot and think, ‘I could set myself us here’. But I prefer Hull.”

Nevertheless they will be back on the road in Peru and heading north by the end of January. And then when they reach the end of that road? “Maybe the Silk Route and Asia next.”

City of Myths River of Dreams 
by James Marr is published by 
Matador priced £8.99. To order 
from the Yorkshire 
Post Bookshop call 01748 821122.