for National Geographic News
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Since the Middle Ages, camel caravans have navigated north from the fabled city of Timbuktu, in present-day Mali, West Africa, in search of the gold of the Sahara desertsalt.
Traveling across the windswept sand dunes, caravans often numbering more than hundred have journeyed to the salt mines of Taudenni, 500 miles (800 kilometers) north of Timbuktu. A human necessity and source of commerce, salt has been in high demand in West Africa since the 12th century when it was first found in the sand dunes of the desert.
Its discovery gave rise to a robust commodity trade that quickly paved a near-mythical trail connecting Timbuktu with Europe, southern Africa, and Persia. With the trade of Taudenni's prized salt, came the ability to move people, information, and ideas across the Sahara desert. During the 12th and 13th centuries, Timbuktu became not only a center of great wealth but of Islamic study. Scholars from across the Islamic world, some from as far away as Persia, journeyed for months across the sands of the Sahara in order to teach and study in the mysterious oasis of Timbuktu.
Today, the great camel caravans of Timbuktu still journey for 14 days and some 500 miles (800 kilometers) to the salt mines of Taudenni.
Traveling in my capacity as a photographer for the National Geographic Cultures Initiative, I recently journeyed with Wade Davis, National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, across the sacred geography of the Sahara, driving four-by-four Land Rovers to visit the ancient salt mines of Taudenni. We were joined on our quest by Alex Chadwick, of National Public Radio's Radio Expeditions, and a film crew from the National Geographic Channel.
Arriving at the salt mines, we encountered a working mine that appeared from out of the sandy haze of the desert, a mythical scene from the pages of the Bible. The mine was cut out of an ancient seabed, an empty sandy region that stretches in every direction. Several hundred men work the mines as indentured slaves, chipping way at the ground beneath the Earth in musty, salt-choked caves.
Once the salt has been cut from the mine, slabs are loaded onto camel caravans. The caravans head south towards Timbuktu, traveling nearly two weeks through featureless sand dunes that warp the mind's depth perceptions. What appears to be close is in fact on the horizon. What appears to be miles away, becomes a small rock that one discovers yards from where you stood.
The Sahara desert surrenders very few realities, only illusions.
Upon arrival in Timbuktu, the salt is passed onto local merchants and distributed down river along the Niger to the largest salt market in West Africa: the river town of Mopti. There the salt blocks are cut into smaller slabs then sold throughout West Africa, a rich and scarce commodity charged with a mystique borne of the desert.
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