Tombouctou, Timbuctu, Ti-n Buktu, however spelt, it is a figure of remoteness. In some ways the place is now more remote than ever. The River Niger used to flow here, that anomaly which rises so close to the ocean, yet sets an absurd course into the depths of the Sahara desert. Nature is fickle here, and as the river changed its course over the centuries, it left Timbuktu stranded among the shifting dunes, its raison d'être as a trading post lost forever.
I set out from Mopti in an old 4x4 flatbed. The driver is tall and very dark, a Mandinka from Mali's forested South. He says he does the trip to Timbuktu every week, and persuades me to pay extra to sit in the cabin with him. When we stop I see the wisdom of my decision - the dozen other passengers, an assortment of fine-featured Fulani cowboys, and pale-skinned Moors in flowing robes, are caked in sand and dust from head to toe.
After some miles the track peters out. The driver seems confident, but I see no hint of a way, no tyre tracks, nothing. A few hours later, I realise we have been driving in a circle for a little while. We stop and a heated argument ensues between the driver and a passenger, each insistently pointing in another direction. The other passengers look from one to the other intently, but in silence.
When we set off again, the driver is less chatty. We drive on and on through a landscape formed by the wind, with rocky outcrops sandblasted smooth, patches of scrub the only vegetation, and no sign of animal life. It is clear that if we get lost here death is inevitable. The sun beats down relentlessly and its hot breath pours in through gaps around the door.
My tension slowly ebbs with the acceptance that I have absolutely no control over my fate. During the hours that follow, the driver's face is inscrutable, and he remains taciturn as we bump across the trackless waste. Finally, as the sun is setting behind us, the mud brick city walls of Timbuktu appear purple-brown on the horizon.
gush of water
Norman Darlington also has a collection of digital-haiga in this issue.
Norman Darlington was born close to half a century ago on an underpopulated island off the Atlantic coast of Europe. He has spent much of the intervening period working and travelling in Africa, the Middle East and southern Asia, but has now returned to his native Ireland where he lives among the hills, forests and rivers that provide endless inspiration for his work in a number of haikai genres, including haibun and renku, and most recently electronic haiga.
He has grown bananas and avocados, and even coaxed tomatoes from the desert sand; he financed his way through university by running Ireland's only tofu workshop, while studying ancient Semitic languages. His training as linguist has given him an interest in the development of haiku in other languages, and he is active in the Dutch HaikuKern list, and a member of the Haiku Club of Slovenia.
He first encountered haiku in the 1980's when, working as a translator, he came upon an essay on the problems of translating Basho's furuike ya. Having had any innate love of poetry driven out of him at school, the chord struck by this encounter with haiku was both powerful and long-lasting. While the haibun and haiku of Kobayashi Issa have exerted a fundamental influence on Norman's artistic development, ultimately it is the philosophy and art of Taneda Santoka, his marrying of the spiritual with the earthy and mundane, and his total identity of life and art, which form the single most important influence on Norman's work.
Image Credit: The image on Darlington's haibun is a digital rendering of his photograph of Timbuctoo.
Copyright 2003/2004 Simply Haiku