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Alexander Gordon Laing, Scottish explorer, first European to visit Timbuktu.

Explorer from a Braver Age

 “I shall show myself to be… a man of enterprise and genius”

– Alexander Gordon Laing

Major Alexander Gordon Laing (27 December 1794 – 26 September 1826) was an explorer and the first European to reach Timbuktu via the north/south route. Laing was a Scottish military officer and explorer that managed to claim his place in history by becoming first European to reach the city of Timbuktu located in the West African nation of Mali on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert using the north/south route.

Think about this man next time you complain about your long flight. The explorers of old were not like most people—not just because of the distances they travelled but because of the courage, intelligence, and seamanship that allowed them to travel incredible distances, survive appalling conditions, and eat new and fascinating animals.

For late 18th– and early 19th–century Europeans, Timbuktu was the El Dorado of Africa. But there’s a reason the word “Timbuktu” is still synonymous with remote isolation because even if Alexander Laing could have accessed Google Maps it wouldn’t have done him any good. With only a vague idea of where he was heading, the British army officer and his tiny retinue left Tripoli in July 1825. Laing’s local guide promised the plucky Scotsman the journey would take only a few weeks, but the caravan spent 13 months wandering the desert, avoiding warring nomads, and fighting its own war with thirst and hunger. The worst of Laing’s ordeal came 1,600 kilometres (1,000 mi) and nearly a year into his journey when his guide betrayed him to bandits. Laing survived and recounted the event like a minor inconvenience akin to burnt chips in a letter to his father-in-law. After detailing multiple cuts and fractures all over his face, head, and neck, he concludes:

“I am nevertheless, as already I have said, doing well.”

Laing stumbled into Timbuktu a couple months afterwards. He and his journal disappeared, but his subsequent murder was confirmed in 1828 by the second European explorer to reach the city.

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