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Heart of the Sahara

By John Pilkington
Explorer, lecturer, photographer, author and broadcaster

Trinity Hall, 1968–1971

Local person

John made an unusual career switch at the age of 40, giving up his job as a town planner to write, photograph and make radio programmes about some of the remotest parts of the world. After many expeditions in Asia and South America, he found himself recently on a strange quest in the southern Sahara.

I've always been fascinated by deserts, so when I heard that camel caravans still make the 700-kilometre journey from Mali's Taoudenni salt mines to Timbuktu, I decided to try and join one. What I found was the stuff of dreams. Every week between November and February, caravans of up to 50 camels leave Timbuktu for the month-long round trip. On the return journey each camel is loaded with four huge slabs of salt – the so-called 'white gold' of the Sahara. Five hundred years ago Saharan salt was literally worth its weight in gold, so the deposits at Taoudenni must have been quite a find. In Timbuktu I started looking for a guide and camels. This proved surprisingly easy (Timbuktu is that sort of place), and I soon signed up with U Batna Ould Shehr, a Moor who knew the desert inside out and was the proud owner of three good-looking beasts. Our days soon settled into a rhythm. At 5 am I'd awake to find U Batna kneeling towards Mecca, deep in prayer. Three glasses of ridiculously sweet tea, then we'd saddle up the camels and be on our way. He spoke only Arabic, of which I knew very little, but as the trip progressed he taught me the words he needed to say to me, like 'camel', 'sand', 'rice', 'tea' and 'keep walking'. The going was exhausting, but by a combination of walking and riding we kept up a good pace. At midday we'd stop for rice and more tea; then carry on until sunset. There was no road – travellers to Taoudenni take routes of their own choosing.

Sahara

After three weeks we reached the salt mines and I stared aghast at the conditions there. There were no streets, no houses, no electricity, no fresh water; not even any cooking fuel apart from camel dung. Daytime temperatures reach 30°C in winter and more than 50°C in summer.

The 100 or so miners survive on a diet of rice and millet, supplemented by camel meat when a caravan offers them a sick or weak animal for slaughter. To slake their thirst they can choose between drinking the brackish contents of local wells or paying a premium price for decent water to be brought in. It's truly a posting from Hell. Salt has been mined in the Sahara since at least the 4th Century, but the deposits at Taoudenni were only discovered in the 1500s. They come from an ancient time of higher rainfall when there was a lake in the Taoudenni basin, and having no outlet its water got steadily saltier until after many centuries it turned into a pan of solid salt. Later this became covered by mud and gravel, so the salt seams today lie some four metres below the flat surface of the basin. Working in teams of three or four, the miners dig pits down to this level, then cut horizontal galleries in which they hack out the salt using crude hand-made axes.

On the return journey I fell in with a salt caravan and found out just how tough desert life can be. The two camel-drivers and thirty camels were up before dawn and carried on well after dark, covering up to 50 kilometres a day compared with perhaps 30 when I'd been with U Batna. Once under way the caravan didn't stop. We even brewed tea on the hoof, using portable braziers which the camel-drivers swung in the breeze as they strode along. At night we cooked rice together on camel-dung campfires, and slept under the stars.

From Timbuktu the salt is shipped up the River Niger to the port of Mopti, where Moorish traders sell it on to people from a wide swathe of West Africa. I joined one of the longboats, known as pinasses, and as we tied up on the crowded Mopti waterfront I wondered about the future of the salt caravans. Lorries are making an appearance in the desert, but camels have the edge in that they don't consume expensive diesel fuel, so as long as there's a demand for salt there'll always be a role for the camels. But will U Batna's sons and grandsons want to spend their lives coaxing these cantankerous creatures across one of the most gruelling deserts on earth? Somehow I doubt it.

John Pilkington

John Pilkington

For details of John's books and multimedia talks visit www.pilk.net