Young Pioneer Tours

Why do we say,”From here to Timbuktu”?

Why do we say,”From here to Timbuktu”? Well Timbuktu, is a real place in case you wondered.. In 2012 Timbuktu hit the headlines during the Mali Civil War when it was captured by MMLA rebels aiming to create a country called Azawad. We will ignore the fact that Azawad also sounds rather mysterious, and concentrate on Timbuktu.

OMG, Timbuktu is a real place!

When the fighting broke out, I was a bit more into Twitter than I am nowadays. I Tweeted,”OMG Timbuktu is a real place”. The BBC then did a story about it and quoted my Tweet! A moment of fame I feared might be my last…

You can read the BBC article here (

But long story short, Timbuktu is a very real place and it is in northern Mali.

What’s the background story?

Timbuktu is a city situated in the northern part of Mali. These people as we said before want their own state, called Azawad. As part of the Mali Empire, it was a major trading route for salt, gold, ivory and slaves. Keep in mind this is long before it became a French colony.

It apparently held incredible riches and therefore gained a mythical type status.

Nowadays, Mali is not exactly a rich place, nor the Empire it once was. Timbuktu is now a beautiful and ancient desert town, obviously past its former glory, but not without its charms, both historical and otherwise.

Yet due to the idiom “from here to Timbuktu” the place has gained almost legendary status. Almost as if it didn’t exist. I am sure I was not the only person to think this. In fairness I meet enough people that have not heard of Nauru, so I am fairly sure I am not.

What does “From here to Timbuktu mean”?

We essentially use this phrase to denote somewhere very far away. It is used to mean a journey we really don’t want to do, such as “ I’m not going from here to Timbuktu to pick up your things”. Not the best example, but you get the picture.

Why do we say from here to Timbuktu?

After discovering it was genuine place, I read a bit about it, but also wanted to know where this idiom came from. So, we know the context in which it is used, but why do say “Timbuktu” instead of say “Xanadu”.

I’ll digress briefly; when I lived in Yangshuo, there was indeed a place nearby called Xanadu, turns out it was not all that magical. The sign though, did always make me quite happy.

It turns out that in the 1800’s, Timbuktu was considered a place of mythical riches. In 1824, the Geographical Society of Paris offered a reward of 7,000 Francs and a gold medal valued at 2,000 Francs to the first European who could visit Timbuktu. Obviously to claim the price they would also have to return alive, and with evidence. Sadly this was pre smart phones.

Did anyone go from here to Timbuktu?

Gordon Liang a Scot, was the first to reach there, but he got shot, stabbed, robbed, and to add insult to injury, they even broke his arm. He stayed for a month to recuperate and then got murdered 2 days after leaving. It was the French explorer Rene-Auguste Caillie who eventually made it and claimed the prize. He did not share with the Liang clan.

I realize I have not actually answered the question: why do we say from here to Timbuktu, so due to this mythical status and that it was REALLY far away, we got the phrase. The fact that you would be risking death going there probably did it no favors either.

Timbuktu is not the treasure house it once was, so whilst the saying stayed, people forgot it existed. Indeed I was one of those people.

Whether we will see mass tourism and people going from here, there, and everywhere to Timbuktu might take a while. In the meantime, we can take you to Mali itself, which is a pretty damned interesting country.

You can check out our Mali independent tours here, to our group tour here (link).

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