In Sahara, Salt-Hauling Camel Trains Struggle On

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Entwined in the age-old commerce of the salt trade and the journeys of the camel caravans across the sands of North Africa, lies the spiritual metaphor that the journey signifies to the people of Timbuktu.

Local Tamashek and Berbers who lead the camel caravans know the power of the emptiness of the Sahara.

"To go into the desert is to go into the realm of the spirit," said retired University of Timbuktu Professor Salem Uld Elhagg. "Because a young camel leader must journey into the desert, and into its isolation, he will suffer. It is through that fear that he will have a spiritual awakening. The desert will lead a man to Allah, to God."

The people of the desert see the salt not just as a commodity to sell, but as a divine gift—a reason for spiritual growth. For a Muslim of Timbuktu, the Sahara desert can be considered a mirror of the soul, a place to see oneself and grow spiritually closer to God.

Desert Pathfinders

The camel caravans are led by one person, a tracker across the emptiness of the desert. The workers, sometimes young boys on their first journey into the desert, put their trust in the guides who are chosen to lead the caravans across the emptiness of the sand.

Guides are chosen because of their special ability to read the desert and determine exactly where they are. To be in error by even a few miles can bring certain death in a place where water is measured in drops, and nothing grows for thousands of miles.

The guides' responsibility is to lead camels and men to the saltmine to the north and then return to Timbuktu to the South.

Our Tamashek guide, a small, aged man with gentle eyes, had lead caravans across the Sahara since the age of 20. He lead our caravan of trucks, armed only with the knowledge of the prevailing wind patterns across the sand, the stars etched across the night sky, the changing color of the sand, and a vintage WWII compass, hopelessly cracked across the glass, but still somewhat reliable.

To the mark each day, our Tamashek guide predicted exactly when we would arrive at the next water hole. The natural springs/wells are the lifeline of every man that passes through desert.

Motorized Threat

For centuries, camel caravans and the trackers that lead them have traversed the Sahara desert in search of the salt of Taudenni. The journey for salt for most who brave the magnitude of Sahara's isolation represents far more than a quest for economic gain. It becomes a journey into the soul, a journey of renewal for a follower of Islam, a chance to step closer to his God.

In recent years, the camel caravan salt trade has been threatened by the arrival of 4x4 trucks that make the arduous journey in a matter of days. With the introduction of this new technology, the price of salt has dropped, threatening the livelihood of those who lead the camel caravans.

With the threat of the loss of the ancient tradition of the salt caravans would come the loss of the sacred journey, a necessary pilgrimage across the desert for a Tamashek boy. And without this sacred pilgrimage comes a loss of identity, a powerful loss of culture for the camel workers of Timbuktu.

As University of Timbuktu professor Salem Uld Elhagg said: "With the loss of the salt caravans comes the loss of our culture and our spiritual well being. The only difference between a human and an animal is culture. We must not lose our sacred culture."

Stories in This Series:
Tribe's Cultural Survival Preserves Fox Prophets, Sacred Masks
In Sahara, Salt-Hauling Camel Trains Struggle On
Reclaiming the Ancient Manuscripts of Timbuktu
Explorer Wade Davis on Initiative to Document Cultures on the Edge

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