WHEN he was a little boy in Glasgow, Joe Lindsay’s mother used to say to him: "Away to Timbuktu!"
Half a century later, he did just that.
"I have always known the phrase ‘away to Timbuktu’ ever since I was a boy, but my mum, I’m quite sure, had no idea of what or where Timbuktu was," Lindsay said.
So some years when his wife Kate asked in the run up to his 60th birthday where in the world he would like to go, he answered: Timbuktu.
"I don’t know why," he added.
"Maybe I’d been reading about Africa."
Timbuktu is the most famous city in the west African nation of Mali.
Sitting on the southern edge of the Sahara, Timbuktu’s remoteness and legendary wealth as a major staging post on the cross desert caravan routes made it a fabled destination for Europeans.
Though that wealthy golden age has long since passed, Timbuktu remains a by-word for the distant and exotic.
So Lindsay, who is well known for his former targe-making business in North Kessock, did not expect to receive for his birthday a box containing a guide book, a travel shirt, sleeping bag, cash and a card with the message: "This is your ticket to Timbuktu."
"It was a surprise. I hadn’t really thought about it again," he said.
"But suddenly here I was, going to Timbuktu.
"We found out that the river Niger goes down a lot in winter, so I had to go then, otherwise I wouldn’t get to go at all. I did think of postponing it, but Kate said: ‘Go. It’s for your 60th birthday, not your 61st.’"
Getting to Mali, however, was far from simple. Even the first step of obtaining a visa proved complicated.
"You don’t just walk into the Post Office and get one," Lindsay pointed out.
"It’s done through an agency and has to come from Brussels and can take four or five weeks. If I’d done that I would literally miss the boat. It’s also very expensive."
Rather than fly directly to Mali without a visa, thus risking refusal and deportation, Lindsay opted to fly to neighbouring Senegal, where a minimal fee to the Malian embassy would quickly secure a visa. The only drawback was that it added 700 miles to the journey each way.
"Kate had arranged the flights as far as Dakar in Senegal. After that I was on my own," he said.
"To get to Mali what you do is pick up a bush taxi to Tambacounda on the border. I went to pick up a bush taxi and the place was more like a car market than a bus station with all these Peugeot 504’s cramming people into them."
The journey to Mali turned out to be longer and more uncomfortable than Lindsay anticipated.
"I got caught out by Ramadan," Lindsay said.
"I took out my bottle of water and offered it to the guy driving, but he told me he could neither eat nor drink between sunrise and sunset. I had a packet of crisps with me, but I didn’t feel I could eat them. It would probably have been fine — but I was 11 hours in that car!"
He had a more worrying experience when he reached the border town of Kayes where they intended to take a train to the capital.
Lindsay took a photograph of their carriage, but was immediately surrounded by a group of young men and dragged out of the station.
"I was sure I was getting mugged," Lindsay recalled.
"I started shouting: ‘Help! Police!’ They stopped and just nodded, then started dragging me towards this deserted building. I could only guess what was going to happen to me in there, so I started yelling ‘help!’ again."
It turned out that the building was not derelict after all, but was actually the police station where he was questioned by the police chief. Fortunately. Lindsay had been able to delete the photograph he had taken inside the train while he was being dragged onto the street and was released.
Continuing his journey to Timbuktu by rail and ferryboat — along the way teaching one Malian student how to address the haggis — he eventually arrived at his fabled destination.
"It’s like Dingwall with sand," he said.
"Basically it looks the same size, but a lot flatter. The roads are tarred to the edge of the town, and after that it’s just sand."
Even so, at its best Timbuktu has a magic even Dingwall might be hard pressed to emulate.
On his last night in the city, Lindsay went for a walk around Timbuktu in the moonlight.
"It was so bright in the moonlight that it was like walking in snow," he said.
"The kids were playing in it, just like they would if it was real snow. It was glorious.
"But I did have one quite weird experience. As I was walking, a couple of hundred men just emerged out of the dark and started walking behind me without a word. I didn’t know what they were up to, but then I realised they were going to the mosque. It was quite a magical moment."
It was not always such a pleasurable experience and conditions, loneliness and language difficulties took their toll to the extent that Kate was on the point of flying out to get him.
Almost a decade on, Lindsay said he would like to think he, and Kate, would be able to go back to Timbuktu for his 70th birthday, but recent violence between the government and fundamentalist insurgents has effectively ruled out a return trip.
"The Foreign Office would throw up their hands in horror if we tried that," he said.
However, he has no regrets about answering Timbuktu when Kate asked him where in the world he wanted to go.
"Other than going up the Amazon, there’s nowhere else on earth that has that exotic feel of a place that’s so far away," he said.
"It was a life changing experience and will be with me for the rest of my life. It was not a holiday. It was an adventure."
• Ticket to Timbuktu: An Adventure by Joe Lindsay is printed and published by For The Right Reasons, priced £6.
There will be an official launch on Saturday 31st August between 10am and 12pm at the Community Market in North Kessock Hall.