As a little kid, one place-name that always fascinated me was Timbuktu. I hadn't a clue where it was, which perhaps was the attraction. In those days I suspect few people could pick it out on a map, despite the name frequently cropping up in discussion of all things distant and mysterious.
I eventually looked it up in the atlas, and that even added more to the mystique _ a tiny dot on the edge of the Sahara desert in the middle of nowhere.
These days, with the ongoing French military operation in Mali, Timbuktu has become headline news. But the childhood image of mystical Timbuktu is far more alluring than the present day political morass.
An AFP news report last week noted that in the old days Timbuktu ``became a byword for exotic remoteness'', in other words, a bit like Nakhon Nowhere. Timbuktu even made it in English dictionaries as being ``a metaphor for far away places,'' with the Oxford English Dictionary calling it ``the most distant place imaginable.''
In the 19th and 20th centuries ``from here to Timbuktu''' became a regular expression describing a long and tortuous journey, somewhat similar to ``from Bangkok to Buri Ram'' but less entertaining.
Alas, the mystique of Timbuktu is fading fast, unlike the desert dust. After all, it's been on the TV news regularly. But as recently as 2006, in a survey of young British people, 66% still believed it was ``a mythical place'', while the other 34% had simply never heard of it. Oh well.
Because it's there
Early tales of Timbuktu suggested it was a city of immense riches, which may have prompted Alfred Tennyson in his poem Timbuctoo to somewhat misleadingly compare the place to the mythical cities of El Dorado and Atlantis.
It also caught the eye of travellers. In 1806, Scottish explorer Mungo Park was reportedly the first Westerner to reach Timbuktu, but he drowned while trying to flee an attack by locals.
Such was the mystery attached to the place that in 1824 a French geographical society offered a 10,000-franc prize for the first non-Muslim to reach Timbuktu and return. It was the second part of the equation which was the tricky bit. Another Scot, Gordon Laing, reached Timbuktu in 1826, but like his compatriot two decades earlier, he came to a sticky end.
Eventually Frenchman Rene Caillie made it there and back in 1828, but had to disguise himself as a Muslim to succeed. Alas, after all that effort, he found Timbuktu to be ``small and unimportant''.
Going for a song
The remoteness of Timbuktu even made it onto the stage and screen in the hit musical Oliver! During the song I'd Do Anything in which Dodger and Oliver make lots of promises to Nancy and Bet, Oliver is asked by Bet would he ``Go to Timbuktu?''; to which he responds ``And back again.''
Another song, Kalamazoo to Timbuktu, released in 1952, features a group called the Paulette Sisters. It begins: ``There's a train by the station in Kalamazoo/And it soon will be leaving on track number two,
I heard the conductor say/It's going a long long way,
It's going all the way from Kalamazoo to Timbuktu.''
OK, the lyrics are a bit dodgy.
For the curious, Kalamazoo, which is an intriguing name in itself, is a city in southern Michigan and does a brisk trade in T-shirts bearing the slogan: ``Yes, there really is a Kalamazoo.''
It also has a habit of regularly popping up in US song lyrics, and the city was made famous by Glenn Miller's 1942 hit (I've Got A Gal In) Kalamazoo. That's the one that starts ``ABCDEFGHI got a gal ...''
You have to be really wrinkly to remember that one.
On top of the world
One other exotic place name that caught my eye as a child was Kathmandu. Interest was originally sparked when the Nepal capital became the launching point of the successful Everest expedition of 1953, with Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay. Everest was arguably the last place on the planet untouched by man.
But the most important outcome of the Everest expedition was that a couple of months later, us kids got the afternoon off school to go to the local flea pit and watch The Conquest of Everest. Hillary and Tenzing were real heroes _ anyone who could get us off school deserved such plaudits.
Kathmandu looked far more exciting in the atlas than Timbuktu, perched as it is on the edge of the formidable Himalayas.
It had a kind of Shangri-la feel to it, a place to visit, if only in your dreams.
Like many teenagers, I became familiar with the classic poem The Green Eye of the Little Yellow God, by Milton Hayes. Somehow the line ``one-eyed yellow idol to the north of Kathmandu'' really caught the imagination. Pity I would never go there, I thought.
Sixteen years after the Everest expedition, I found myself in 1969 sitting on the back of a truck for the nine-hour journey from the Indian border to Kathmandu, an experience in itself. Of course, I never did get to see a green-eyed yellow idol, or Mt Everest for that matter. But even in Kathmandu the majestic panorama of the Himalayan foothills made you feel like you were somewhere special. And the pancakes were great.
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About the author
- Writer: Roger Crutchley