If they had called it anything else, no one would have ever bothered. But Timbuktu is the ultimate in label-collecting tourism, more of a word for far-offness than somewhere on a real map.

A sand seaport on the shore of the Sahara, it always has been a pig of a place to get to, ever since tales about its fabulous wealth washed around the known world in the early Middle Ages after a visit to Cairo by its ruler, Mansa Musa. Musa brought so much gold with him that its Cairo price slumped for decades.Timbuktu's myth of wealth obsessed Europe's set of footloose adventurers, whose attempts to discover gold ended in a series of desicated corpses until 1828 when Frenchman Rene Caillie made it and lived to cry "fraud." Caillie, who had undergone a masochist's marathon of torture and thirst, was deeply let down: "a jumble of badly built houses ... ruled over by a heavy silence."

It is still an arduous journey, taking us three days northbound from Mali's capital, Bamako, wallowing through the sand-sea in our Land-Rover, passing miles and miles of trees killed by the Sahel drought.

Tarmac in Africa obeys its own, puzzling rituals. It wasn't so surprising that a beautiful piece of metaled road appeared from nowhere leading us into town. A gaudily painted sign all but shouted: "Welcome to the Pearl of the Desert."

Mali is one of the poorest countries on earth, so the police use their powers to supplement their pay. It can be nasty. Television journalist David Henshaw was once stripped completely naked and intimately searched by Malian border guards, a story which flickered in my memory as I walked up to the station. We filled in the idiotically nosy forms, suffered a purposeless wait with funeral piety, paid a small bribe, and were free.

The journey was more fun than the town. Caillie had every right to be depressed. A series of dowdy mud homes, a donkey noisily going about its toilet, an old lady hanging up her washing, a military camp "forbidden to photograph," all encircled by an ocean of baking sand.

Waves of label-collecting Europeans throwing their money around have given the locals a nice contempt for Westerners, who are there to be conned and offered horrid knick-knacks. Everywhere we went we were pursued by a cloud of small boys, who could politely be described as pesky.

The people have a quality of grasping desperation different in league from the rest of this part of the world. Chaotic as West Africa can be, Timbuktu's road-crash culture of Western tourist venue and Third World disaster zone is peculiarly joyless.

The hotel charged a ludicrous $90 for our laundry, the gas station attendant claimed he had run out of gas, a ruse reversed when offered another bribe. As the tank was filled, the boys clambered over the Land Rover and a blind leper tap-tapped on the wind screen.

The Land Rover engine strained as we made our getaway. A tough one for the travel brochure writers.