Yes, Timbuktu is a real place. If you’re as hazy about the geography as I was, look at a map of West Africa and find the Republic of Mali. It’s the landlocked country just below Algeria and bordered by the countries of Mauritania, Senegal, Guinea, Côte D’Ivoire, Burkina Faso and Niger. Once you’ve found it, follow the Niger River from the capital city of Bamako down past Ségou and Mopti to Timbuktu.
You will have just traced a journey of nearly 1,000 kilometers, which I accomplished in a week, but which took the first Europeans, who searched for Timbuktu in the 18th and early 19th centuries, months of sickness and misery. It wasn’t until 1828 that René Caillié, son of a poor Parisian baker, reached Timbuktu and returned to tell his tale.