This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.
Location: Essakane, Mali
Dates: Second weekend in January
Level of Participation: 3 – discover the party deep in the Sahara
For three days a year, a desolate patch of Saharan sand, 65km north of Timbuktu, hosts ‘the world’s most remote music festival’. That’s what the Festival in the Desert bills itself as, and it’s a credible claim. The sandy site is half a day’s Jeep ride – or three days by camel if you have a tough derrière – from a town that is itself synonymous with inaccessibility.
The event dates back centuries to gatherings where Tuaregs, the turban-wrapped Saharan nomads, would converge to race camels, show off their swordsmanship and exchange news on the desert grapevine. After Mali gained independence in 1960, the Tuaregs endured drought and persecution by their sedentary countrymen. The resulting conflict, in which the Tuaregs fought to protect their marginalised lifestyle, finally ended in 1996, with the symbolic incineration of 3000 weapons in Timbuktu.
Against this background, not to mention an endless sea of dunes, the proud desert people lead camel chains to Essakane from across the Sahara. Toubabs (the local term for white folk) are in evidence too. Most of the white faces at the early festivals belonged to musicians and journalists, but intrepid music buffs are intrigued by a gig that attracts the likes of Robert Plant and Manu Chau to the middle of nowhere.
Having ditched your kit in a goatskin tent, the first order of business might be a trip to the bar. It is, after all, the most remote in the world. After that, wander the craft tents, browsing the fantastically engraved and shaped Tuareg jewellery and leatherwork. Pick up a turban or sit in the shade, drinking bittersweet tea and haggling with a tradesman in aviators and a turquoise robe. There are various games, generally involving tearing around on camels, and women sing traditional tindés (songs). As the day sizzles into evening, the single stage fires up.
Essentials: Mali is one of the best African countries to travel in, but its transport is slow. If you have limited time, various companies offer packages that include the festival.
Local Attractions: The best thing about Timbuktu is its famous name. Head instead to the laid-back Tuareg centre, Gao.
More Info: www.festival-au-desert.org
See a list of other festivals in January here.