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Timbuctoo by Tahir Shah - excerpt

“In this epic novel, Lonely Planet Traveller contributor Tahir Shah takes inspiration from real events to reimagine the story of Robert Adams. The era may be Regency, but Shah's novel feels more Victorian in its scope, and we meet a colourful cast of individuals across a sequence of cliffhanger chapters. Shah's gift for characterisation and dark humour make this book a welcome addition to a genre that few writers would have the courage to approach.”

Oliver Smith, Lonely Planet Traveller

Timbuctoo by Tahir Shah  (excerpt) 

"And, sir, I understand that you claim that you have been to Timbuctoo."

"I claim nothing, but I've been there."

"And what took you to Timbuctoo, Mr. Adams?"


"How many did you own?"

"No, no, I was not a merchant."


"You misunderstand. I was a slave."

"A Christian... a Christian slave?"


"I have never heard of such an outrageous thing!"

The conversation was almost too much for Caldecott to take. He began hyperventilating and staggered out of the room.

Cochran entered, his lilac tailcoat scented with rose water.

"I must advise you that Sir Geoffrey is prone to these attacks," he said solemnly. "They do not in general last very long. But I fear this one may last longer than most."

Ten minutes later, Caldecott emerged. He was ashen-grey, and looked as if he had suffered a heart attack. He slouched in a chinoiserie chair beside the window, his stout form overflowing the sides.

"Tell me, Mr. Adams, why should I believe your assertion?"

Adams looked down at the chairman.

"I don't care if you believe me or not."

Fortescue stepped forward until his shadow fell over Sir Geoffrey. "Would it not be prudent for Mr. Adams to transcribe his recollections to paper? After all, the notes may be of assistance to your own Mr. Peddie."

"Our Major Peddie can well do without the help of an American!" snapped Caldecott, rising to the bait.

"But surely any information that might reduce the hazards of the party has some value?"

"Very well, sir. We shall take your statement for the record."

"I should like to help," replied Adams, "but I have to return to Hudson."

"That is not possible as you are aware," Fortescue broke in, "not until the naval blockade is at an end."

Adams dug a hand into his pocket, allowing his fingertips to caress the lace handkerchief.

"I have, sir, come to realize that nothing is impossible," he said.

"Write us a full and detailed account of your reminiscences, Mr. Adams, and we shall afford you a passage back to America when the conflict is at an end. Cochran, fetch a quill and a ream of paper."

"I am sorry," Adams replied quickly, "but writing my tale will be impossible." 

Fortescue looked at him with surprise.

"Are you sure?"

"Yes, very sure."

"May I enquire why?"

"A difficulty prevents me. You see..."

"See what?"

"You see I can't read or write."

Fortescue broke into a smile. Stuck in the chair, Caldecott waved a hand at his assistant. "Mr. Cochran, as it seems as though inadequate American schooling has left Mr. Adams deficient in the art of literacy, you are to commit his narration to paper." 


Tahir Shah is returning to judge Leap Local's 2012 travel story competition. He is the author fifteen books, many of which chronicle a wide range of outlandish journeys through Africa, Asia and the Americas. For him, there’s nothing so important as deciphering the hidden underbelly of the lands through which he travels. Shunning well-trodden tourist paths, he avoids celebrated landmarks, preferring instead to position himself on a busy street corner or in a dusty café and observe life go by. Insisting that we can all be explorers, he says there’s wonderment to be found wherever we are–it’s just a matter of seeing the world with fresh eyes.

Shah’s novel TIMBUCTOO, is inspired by a true life tale from two centuries ago. The story of the first Christian to venture to Timbuctoo and back–a young illiterate American sailor–it has been an obsession since Shah discovered it in the bowels of the London Library twenty years ago.

He recently published a collection of his entitled TRAVELS WITH MYSELF, a book with reportage pieces as diverse as the women on America’s Death Row, to the trials and tribulations of his encounter in a Pakistani torture jail.

His book CALIPH'S HOUSE: A Year in Casablanca, is lauded as one of Time Magazine’s Top 10 Books of the year… (more about Tahir)


For centuries, the greatest explorers of their age were dispatched from the power-houses of  Europe London, Paris and Berlin on a quest unlike any other: To be the first white Christian to visit, and then to sack, the fabled metropolis of Timbuctoo.

Most of them never returned alive.

At the height of the Timbuctoo mania, two hundred years ago, it was widely believed that the elusive Saharan city was fashioned in entirety from the purest gold everything from the buildings to the cobble-stones, from the buckets to the bedsteads was said to be made from it.

One winter night in 1815, a young illiterate American seaman named Robert Adams was discovered half-naked and starving on the snow-bound streets of London. His skin seared from years in the African desert, he claimed to have been a guest of the King of Timbuctoo.

Thought of an American claiming anything let alone the greatest prize in exploration was abhorrent in the extreme. Closing ranks against their unwelcome American guest, the British Establishment lampooned his tale, and began a campaign of discrediting him, one that continues even today.

An astonishing tale based on true-life endurance, Tahir Shah's epic novel Timbuctoo brilliantly recreates the obsessions of the time, as a backdrop for one of the greatest love stories ever told. Timbuctoo will be released on June 28, 2012. This is a limited edition hardback, very very high spec, and designed along the lines of the travel books of two centuries ago. It weighs 2 kilos (almost 4.5 lbs), has fabulous marbled endpapers, a silk bookmark, a pouch at the rear with inserts, and six huge fold-out maps. The paper is wood-free, and the cover embossed with raised gold type. In addition, each copy contains the clues needed to begin a treasure hunt that could result in locating one of four golden treasures of Timbuctoo. The book is a thing of extraordinary beauty, and the kind of book that will last two hundred years or more.