Unique Holiday Ideas: Mali’s Festival au Désert

The Festival au Désert, referred to in English as the Festival in the Desert, is a yearly event normally held in Essakane, Mali, deep in the Sahara Desert. This series of Tuareg and world music performances makes one of the best holidays available. The next festival is set for 10-12 January 2013.


The Festival au Désert, founded in 2001, is a modern version of the festivals that have enriched Tuareg culture for centuries. Its organizers put great emphasis on the combination of tradition and modern day. In addition to the music, camel races are a popular attraction. However, the goal of the festival is to foster peace and understanding between artists and musicians from all parts of Africa and the rest of the world. It exposes visitors to traditional North African cultures and garners exposure for musicians trying to gain an international reputation.

Camel in Mali

This camel in Mali shows the remoteness of the Festival au Desert


While many of the performers at the Festival au Désert can be expected to be from Mali or nearby countries, programmers make great efforts to book Western musicians to promote cross-fertilization of musical tradition. Tinariwen, the modern rock band with its roots in the Tuareg resistance movement, are frequent attendees, but so is guitarist Vieux Farka Touré and the internationally renowned Desert Blues. In 2004 the festival was the site of the founding of Nigerian band Etran Finatawa, a multitribal group that play together in the name of peace and reconciliation.

Holiday potential

Mali is a country poor only in economic terms. A visit to the festival can be combined with a trip to historical Timbuktu. This ancient trading town at the southern edge of the Sahara is fifteen kilometres north of the River Niger. Timbuktu grew on the wealth generated by a flow of salt, gold, ivory and slaves. It was an important centre of Islamic scholarship, and its libraries still contain manuscripts dating back to the twelfth century. For visitors who want more than just culture, there is always the option of camel rides into the desert to camp overnight. Combining such a tour with the three days of the festival yields a unique experience of North Africa’s traditions and its modern culture. For similar holiday ideas, prospective visitors should consult their preferred travel agent.

Tribute Act at 2007 Festival

A scene from the 2007 festival, a tribute act to Ali Farka Touré who had died during 2006.

Getting there

Essakane lies about 70 kilometres to the west of fabled Timbuktu in the northern part of Mali. The Festival au Desert is frequently touted as the most remote musical event on Earth. Reaching it can be a challenge, so guests are encouraged to use one of the festivals partner travel agencies, either to book individual transportation or to sign up for a tour. On-site accommodation, for instance, may involve traditional Tuareg tents. Local hotels and guesthouses exist but are often booked well in advance.

The Festival au Désert is a profound expression of the very best of North Africa. Its cultural significance and its unique setting combine with the sheer fun of the experience to make visits to the festival stand out among holiday ideas as one of the most unusual ideas to be found.

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