Since the Middle Ages, camel caravans have headed north from the storied city of Timbuktu, in musical Mali, into the windswept Saharan sands in search of a most valuable mineral that could be traded for gold and even slaves. They were after salt, or ‘white gold’. Following this historic route is still possible, and it’s one of the 78 voyages covered inside lonely planet’s colourful new title Great Journeys. Here is an excerpt.
At its peak, caravans of more than 100 camels would navigate the nearly 800km north from Timbuktu up and over massive dunes, through sandstorms, and in spite of wild fluctuations in temperature, eventually reach the salt mines of Taoudenni. They were discovered in the 12th century, a time when West Africa was flush with gold and ivory but in dire need of salt. Suddenly the Sahara became vitally important and soon trails bloomed from Timbuktu in all directions, connecting present day Mali with West and southern Africa, Morocco and Europe, Ethiopia, Egypt and Arabia. And it wasn’t just salt, ivory and gold moving through the desert, but people, ideas, music and eventually Islam. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Timbuktu was not only wealthy, but a vortex of Islamic thought. Scholars trekked across the desert sands for months from as far as Persia, to teach and study with one another.
The salty salad days came to an end when Portuguese explorers opened the West African coast to European trade. Soon Timbuktu held less promise for the West Africans since the sail from Europe was now relatively easy and safe, and the Saharan crossing still arduous. Timbuktu and the rest of North Africa suffered a gradual political and economic decline. The Moroccans dealt the caravan trade a near fatal blow when in 1591–92 they attacked Timbuktu and other important cities like Gao. The soldiers destroyed buildings, stole property and turned even prominent citizens into refugees.
Although most of the traditional caravan routes are now largely camel-free, a shorter route from Timbuktu to Taoudenni in Mali is still operational as a largely localised salt trade. However, some of the indigenous Tuareg people still cross the Sahara by camel, travelling for as far as 2400km and as long as six months. Salt remains their most valuable commodity.
The Journey Today
It all begins in Timbuktu, its streets filled with sand blown in from the desert. The oldest of Timbuktu’s mosques, dating from the early 14th century, is Dyingerey Ber Mosque. Its mud minaret with wooden struts is one of the city’s most enduring images. For the best view of the mosque, climb to the roof of the Bibliotheque Al-Imam Essayouti opposite the mosque’s eastern entrance. Timbuktu remains home to some of the best Islamic libraries in the world, including the Centre de Recherches Historiques Ahmed Baba, with 23,000 Islamic religious, historical and scientific texts.
The salt mines of Taoudenni, 800km north of the city in the desert, are still attended by camel caravans, and you can visit them by camel or 4WD. The mines are cut out of an ancient seabed that seems to stretch in all directions. Hundreds of men work the mine, some reportedly as indentured servants, cutting slabs of salt and loading them on camels for the 14-day trip back to town through a seemingly limitless monochrome of sand that stretches your depth of perception to untested limits. In Timbuktu, the slabs are loaded onto riverboats, which cruise up the Niger River to Mopti, the largest salt market in West Africa. It’s possible to join the three-day journey in either direction.
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In Mopti’s port you’ll see the requisite salt bricks, dried fish, firewood, pottery, goats, chickens and a wonderful cast of characters building boats. Historically the Sahara caravan trail continued east through the city of Gao, 350km beyond Timbuktu in one of Africa’s most forgotten corners graced with a stunning riverside dune, and into Niger. If you time it right, you can still manage to travel with twice-yearly camel caravans from Agadez to Bilma in Niger, although most of this territory is dominated by 4WD these days. You’ll also need a hefty 4WD vehicle to make a full trans-Sahara passage from Bilma, northeast to Cairo or Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, or from Timbuktu to marvellous Marrakech.
Short trips are the most popular Saharan excursions and can be easily organised in Timbuktu. The most popular include sunset trips by camel to nearby dunes or overnight trips to the same dunes at sunset, followed by a night under the stars, often at a Tuareg encampment. You can also shorten the Taoudenni trip by taking a 4WD.
Bamako, Mali’s capital, is sprawling and gritty, and can be overwhelming if you let the streets full of people, cars, buzzing flocks of mobylettes (mopeds) and clouds of pollution get to you. And yet, most are drawn in by the chance to hear some of Africa’s best music featuring indigenous kora (harp)-driven melodies, and those gritty Malian blues. If you like your markets colourful, clamorous and spilling into the surrounding streets, and if you appreciate pulsing night-time energy, Bamako might just get under your skin.
Text written by Adam Skolnick and taken with permission from Great Journeys, published by Lonely Planet Publications, October 2011. Available for purchase (£29.99) at shop.lonelyplanet.com
Ideal time commitment: four weeks
Best time of year: October to February
Essential tip: check the current security situation before venturing from Timbuktu
• Walking the sandy streets of Timbuktu, once a great city, now haunted by dusty memories, with a few epic 14th-century buildings still standing.
• Venturing on a camel into the Sahara, where you can see the sun set over dunes and sleep in Taureg camps beneath the stars.
• Venturing into the moonscape salt mines of Taoudenni.
• Following the salt downriver to the port markets and boatyards in Mopti.
• Bouncing over to Bamako, where you can revel in some of Africa’s best and most soulful music.
For centuries, Mali’s griots (also called jelis), a hereditary caste of musicians, have served as the praise singers and storytellers of Malian society and continue to play an important role. Toumani Diabaté, the undisputed master of the 21-string kora (harp), is himself a 71st-generation kora player and griot. Other renowned Malian kora players, such as Ballaké Sissoko and Mamadou Diabaté, also come from griot families. The blues are another Malian speciality – some scholars believe that the roots of American blues lie with the Malian slaves who worked on US plantations. The genius of Ali Farka Touré, who died in 2006, was largely responsible for Mali’s musical migration beyond Africa’s shores.
• Men of Salt (Michael Benanav) A thrilling account of a 40-day journey across the Sahara as part of a camel caravan from Timbuktu to the salt mines of Taoudenni.
• Sahara Unveiled (William Langewiesche) Written by a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, this travelogue documents the author’s almost 2000km journey across the Algerian Sahara.
• Timbuktu: The Sahara’s Fabled City of Gold (Marq de Villiers & Sheila Hirtle) A copiously researched and enthralling history of an ancient and evocative city.
• Bamako (2006) Directed by Abderrahmane Sissako, this film is set in Mali’s capital city, where the International Monetary Fund and World Bank are on trial for being the source of African poverty, while village life goes on.