In January 2003 I was riding a KTM west through Mali en route to Guinea, and thought it would be worth the 225 km trip from Douentza, located on the sealed road from Gao to Bamako, to Timbuktu.
There are a few reasonable campsites in Douentza and the track starts next to the fuel station in the centre of town at N15 00.7′ W2 57.0′. For the first 116km it’s easy to follow and in relatively good condition with just a few corrugations. Thereafter, it’s a different story with soft sand setting in nearly all the way to the southern bank of the river Niger at km 205. There are many deviations in all directions but none of them offer much relief. I wouldn’t like to attempt it in a 2WD or on a heavily loaded bike, or in the wet season. The track passes through many creek beds that are dry in the winter months, but which may well make the route impassable during the rains. The scenery is typically Sahelian but quite densely vegetated in places.
Navigation was relatively easy, with the clearly defined track heading in a northerly direction most of the time. There was one major junction on the route, a track heading off to the east at km105. Ignore this and continue to head north. At km139 you’ll pass through the village of Gare where the sand is at it’s worse, and shortly afterwards at km171 there’s a few houses and a tourist campsite, but in January 2003 this looked deserted and closed.
As you near the river the going gets easier, or you’ve just got used to it, before you arrive at the point where you board the ferry to Korioume at km205. When I crossed the small harbour wasn’t in use. Instead everyone boarded at a point on the bank a few hundred metres further east. It was difficult to ascertain the correct price for the ferry, but at the time it was 12000CFA split equally between each vehicle being carried, regardless of the size.
From Korioume there’s a sealed road all the way to the centre of Timbuktu, but you’re back in soft sand when driving around the town. Despite its reputation for hassle, in my experience it was certainly no worse than any other part of Africa. To make things easy on yourself, it’s worth hiring a guide to show you round the sights, some of which can be quite difficult to find. Expect to pay between 3000 and 7000 CFA for half a day. You can also get your passport stamped free of charge at the local tourist information office.
If you’re travelling by public transport or on two wheels then you might consider leaving by boat from Kourioume to Mopti or Gao. I managed to get myself and my motorcycle on a cargo carrying pinasse to Mopti for 55000CFA, although I’m sure with some negotiation you could get a much better price. The voyage took about 50 hours, and included frequent and long stops at towns and villages on the way, and for the numerous occasions that the boat ran aground.
Basic meals in the form of rice three times a day, twice with fish, were provided by the friendly crew, as were endless glasses of Chinese tea. This is normally included in the price. Accommodation was very basic-I slept on the roof above the engine room. In January there were very few if any mosquitoes due to the generally cold temperature and the wind that forced me to stay fully clothed in my riding suit and in my sleeping bag for most of the trip. Outside of the winter months I guess it would be a different story.