Every week between November and February, a caravan of up to 50 camels arrives bellowing and snorting in Timbuktu. They are at the end of a three-week, 450-mile trek and each carries four tombstone-like slabs of salt the white gold of the Sahara. A thousand years ago Saharan salt was literally worth its weight in gold, so the deposits at Taoudenni in what is now the northernmost tip of Mali must have been quite a find. At first the miners were Negro slaves, more recently political prisoners, and today mostly ex-nomads whose herds have fallen victim to the many sub-Saharan droughts. Taoudenni has no houses, no fresh water, no medicines, no electricity, no telephone, not even any cooking fuel apart from camel dung. Its a posting from Hell. People around the world name Timbuktu as the most outlandish place they can think of, but people in Timbuktu name Taoudenni. Taoudenni is Timbuktus Timbuktu.
On the morning of my departure I awoke with palpitations. My guide and camels were waiting at Adei Ould Ashehrs family tent not far from Timbuktu. Adei was going to take me there in his pickup. As a precaution against robbers I decided to leave my passport, credit card and most of my remaining money with a friends brother, Hamata Ag Oumalha, who was an officer at the local army barracks. Youre going on a long and dangerous journey, he told me gravely, but Im glad to see you have Arab robes and a turban. Keep up the disguise at all times and you should be alright.
I wasnt so sure. My guide U Batna Ould Shehr would be a Moor, the famously brutal race of people who for generations have terrorised the western Sahara. A long line of Europeans have been lured to their deaths by Moors, starting with the Irishman Daniel Houghton in 1791 not far west from where I would be going. They stole his musket and tobacco and left his carcass to the desert rats. I had no musket, but to be on the safe side I bought a large bag of tobacco as a present for U Batna.
We found Adeis family of 15 as the sun went down. Apart from camels they herded sheep, goats and cattle, so had to move around constantly to keep the animals appetites for tussock grass satisfied. The desert around Timbuktu is actually quite fertile, supporting numerous nomadic families like Adeis. (As I journeyed north Id discover that every one of them was related to Adei in some way, so as his guest I was in no danger of being robbed.) With children swarming round the pickup, U Batna came out to meet us and I realised straight away that he was not the Moor of the history books. A young, unassuming man, he made tea for us all and spoke quietly in Arabic about what we were about to do. There was no mention of muskets.
We started next morning at sunrise. The camels were brought in two large white ones for riding and a smaller brown one to carry the water and provisions. I was touched (and relieved) to find that Adei had somehow come up with a Western-style saddle for me, rather than one of the winged wooden ones used by the desert people. It was an enormous Italian contraption, iron-framed with two well-worn leather seats, which had somehow found its way south from the Mediterranean after the Second World War. After a shaky start on the rear seat behind the hump I switched to the front one and bounced along contentedly for hours.
Our camels were castrated males, and the older white ones proved wonderfully docile and willing, despite the long days. I named them Buttercup and Daisy. The younger brown one, on the other hand, was a rebel. On the first day he slipped his nose lead and led U Batna a merry chase across the desert. Later he lay down and rolled in a dustbowl, almost rupturing one of the water carriers. He was always snorting, gurgling or otherwise voicing complaints I called him the Runt.
Our days soon settled into a rhythm. At 5am Id awake to find U Batna already up and praying. Three glasses of ridiculously sweet green tea, then wed saddle and load the camels and be under way by 6.00. At midday wed stop for more tea and possibly some hurriedly cooked pasta; then it was back on the road till sunset at about 6pm. Fodder for the camels was always a problem, and sometimes wed continue long into the night looking for it. They had a particular liking for the desert tussock grass that the Moors call ra’bat, and I soon learned to spot this from a distance, even by starlight. Its true that camels store fat in their humps, but a hungry camel is a grumpy and uncooperative camel, so our camps were always pitched with the camels needs first in mind.
By contrast, water was rarely a worry. As everyone knows, a camel can survive for a month without water, and I discovered that it can also carry up to 80 litres for its human companions. In the Sahara the containers for this are made from the inner tubes of lorry tyres. The tube is cut in half to make two semicircles, whose ends are then neatly sewn together, one being left open to form a spout. An inspirational re-use of 21st Century technology and a great improvement on the leaky leather pouches that went before.
I struggled with the punishing daily routine, and it was just as well I didn’t know that U Batna was letting me in gently. On the fourth day there was no midday tussock grass for the camels so no pause for pasta. On the return journey I was to find that the salt caravans follow an even tougher schedule, sometimes walking for 15 hours and covering 35 miles a day compared with our paltry 25. For variety I alternated walking with riding, each providing some relief from the other. There was always plenty to see, observe and wonder about, from the steadily diminishing clumps of tussock grass to our encounters with sand lizards, dung beetles, desert foxes and hares, and even once a pair of gazelle.
One thing I especially enjoyed about the desert was the silence. By day the only sounds were the gentle footsteps of the camels, and by night nothing at all. Sunrises were particularly peaceful I was surprised how good it was not to have birdsong. But those silent dawns always came too soon, bringing an end to the night-time displays overhead which were sometimes almost beyond belief. With no streetlights for hundreds of miles in any direction, the night sky became a brilliant array of constellations flooding the desert with a ghostly glow. I spent hours keeping a lookout for shooting stars (when I could stay awake, that is). We began the return journey under a new moon, and by the third evening the moonlight was easily bright enough to walk by. Keen to see his family again, U Batna made the most of this by extending our marches into the night. When, eventually, he decided to make camp, wed hobble the camels who then shuffled around nearby, the white ones glowing eerily in the moonlight as they munched their grass.
U Batna spoke only Arabic, but as the trip progressed he taught me most of the words that seemed to matter. As well as the usual please, thank you, greetings and goodbyes, I see from my notebook that I can now say the Arabic words for desert, camel, sand, well, dune, caravan, tea, rice, dates, peanuts, saddle, tired, sleep, lizard, fox and the three types of desert grass that the camels like to eat. Our banter was entirely about camels, sand and how to cook rice you certainly couldnt have accused us of waffle.
U Batna also proved to be an amazingly good cook. Id been warned to expect the worst in the desert you eat to survive, and your enjoyment isnt helped by the heaps of sand in every mouthful. But the daily rice that he boiled up over our thornwood campfires was a real delight, and my craving for calories was satisfied by liberal pourings of a mysterious but surprisingly tasty liquid cow fat that he carried, rather worryingly, in an old plastic motor oil bottle.
Something I never got used to was wearing the bou-bou (Arab robe) and houli (turban). Whoever says that this is sensible Saharan apparel, evolved over centuries for the desert traveller, has obviously never worn it while trying to saddle a camel in a strong wind. With sleeves and bits of turban flapping around me Id spend ages fumbling and tripping, before eventually tearing off the yards of material, completing the job and then laboriously putting it all back on again. I was also dismayed to find that swaddling my head in half-a-dozen layers of cloth, far from keeping it cool, turned it into a self-heating oven, which became steadily more uncomfortable until I was forced to unwind the houli and fan my beetroot face in a state of near-delirium. U Batna was clearly shocked by this constant dressing and undressing. Having worn the same clothes for years, he found the idea of being seen bou-bou-less or houli-less unthinkable.
One thing Ill never forget is how clean the desert was. Even on this well-used caravan route I saw no rubbish whatsoever, apart from the occasional broken flip-flop. It also struck me as a surprisingly hygienic place to be. It never mattered that we couldnt spare water for washing a quick scrub with the bone-dry sand, and hands and cooking pots came up sparkling. I was never ill.
As the days passed I grew more and more impressed with U Batnas navigation skills. Scanning yet another flat, featureless horizon ahead, hed instruct me to lead the camels in such-and-such a direction, and 20 minutes later would come racing up to correct me. For some reason I seemed to have a tendency to veer to the right. I never got to the bottom of this I always steered carefully by my shadow, making allowance for the fact that the shadow was revolving slowly around me, yet without landmarks I could never manage to bring our caravan to the correct spot on the horizon. By night it was much easier Taoudenni being due north, we followed the Northern Star which never budged.
At the halfway point we found Adei waiting with various friends. After more than a week with only U Batna for company I found it daunting to be back in a crowd, but one of those with him was Hamada Diakité, an extraordinary man who had helped me prepare for the trip. Timbuktus only Rastafarian, Hamada was half Bambara and half Tuareg a rarity in sub-Saharan Africa where intermarriage is often frowned on. Despite no schooling hed picked up a remarkable number of languages, speaking English, French and Arabic fluently and German, Spanish and Songhai (the language of Malis far east) to a degree, not to mention his native Bambara and Tamasheq (the language of the Tuaregs).
Hamada wasnt just a great interpreter he was also a magnificent go-between. One of the trading caravans caught up with us and he quickly introduced me to its camel-drivers, who treated us all to tea and camel-talk as they plodded steadily northwards. The trading caravans stop only to sleep. During the day even tea is brewed on the hoof, using portable braziers which the camel-drivers swing in the breeze as they stride along. For their final six days to Taoudenni the camels have no grazing at all, so the caravans carry mountains of fodder all laboriously hand-picked by the camel-drivers during their brief overnight stops. These are dedicated men indeed.
With 80 miles still to go, we stopped at a well where a great many people and camels were gathered. This was Unan, the final uncontaminated water source. As I was taking photographs some men started hurling rocks from behind me. I scurried for cover, and later Hamada told me hed heard one of them shout that my camera was a gun. Another, who knew more about cameras, had replied that it wasnt a gun but could still produce a brilliant flash which would make them blind. Actually they were both wrong my Pentax doesnt fire bullets and doesnt have flash. And I wasnt even pointing it at them.
On a scorching late-January morning we descended to the mud plain which overlies Taoudennis deposits of salt. The landscape was now at its starkest to the south a line of massive dunes, to the north a red rocky peak. The mines are actually just rectangular pits, about six to eight metres square, dug by hand to a depth of four metres where the glistening white salt strata are exposed. From each pit galleries fan out horizontally underground, and from these throughout the day comes the tap, tap, tap of miners at work. At any one time between 100 and 150 men can be found eking out a living at Taoudenni. The plain is littered with the worked-out pits of their predecessors. The currently active area is easy to spot by the salt slabs lying around everywhere. Adei weaved the pickup between them and parked outside the only buildings at Taoudenni, some filthy shacks made of you guessed salt.
I spent the day exploring the pits with Hamada. The miners were friendly and happy to talk, though they carried on hacking and chiselling throughout our conversations. These were self-employed desperadoes, many of them trying to pay off debts, and rest breaks were not part of their routine. In a ten-hour day a strong miner can produce, clean, carry and stack eight 20-kilo slabs, which the camel-drivers pay for in the time-honoured way by delivering one slab in every four to the miners house in Timbuktu.
The markup in price between Taoudenni and Timbuktu is what gives both miners and camel-drivers a living. A top-grade slab will fetch about £1.60 at the pit but four times this in Timbuktus Grand Marché. In a typical month, allowing for the time taken to dig the pit, a miner might produce 140 slabs, which if all goes well will bring him an income of perhaps £200. But all doesnt always go well. If a camel bolts or is badly loaded at any time on its journey the slabs may get broken, greatly reducing their value. If one of the broken ones happens to be earmarked for a miners house, thats the one that gets delivered. The camel-drivers pay no compensation in fact no money changes hands at all. Until recently the miners had no choice but to accept this unfair system, but now an alternative exists in the form of huge lorries which have started to make their way across the desert. A camel caravan takes more than a month to make the round trip to Taoudenni the lorries can do it in a week. The lorry operators pay less per slab, but they pay on collection so cover the risk of breakages themselves. More importantly, they pay cash.
I accepted an invitation to spend the night in one of the salt shacks a generous offer which I should have politely declined. In all that’s been written about Taoudenni over the years, no mention has been made of its giant rats. I settled innocently into my sleeping bag and fell asleep, only to be woken by a heavy object sitting on my stomach. I turned over and the object scuttled across the earth floor, knocking over my water bottle. An hour later I could still hear the object (or possibly several of them) scurrying backwards and forwards along the walls of the shack. Finally a pair of smelly whiskers tickled my arm and I decided enough was enough. I hauled the sleeping bag outside under the stars, where I was blissfully free of rodent company but harassed noisily for the rest of the night by an insomniac goat.
Next morning I took a last stroll across Taoudennis lunar landscape, listened for a final time to the tap, tap, tap of the miners picks under my feet, said farewell to three or four of them who, with Hamada translating, had become genuine friends, and climbed into Adeis pickup for the journey south. It was now February and the Sahara was heating up rapidly. But as the days were getting hotter so the nights were becoming colder, and that night my down sleeping bag was barely sufficient to keep away the chill. In the morning, however, this was all forgotten when we met Bouna Ould Mohamed, his son Mohamed Ould Sidi, and 30 camels laden with salt slabs, heading steadily south.
Bouna was a friend of Adeis, and quite willing to let his strange white friend with cameras (or possibly guns) tag along. This 60-year-old had been leading camels between Timbuktu and Taoudenni all his adult life, and was as fit as its humanly possible to be. He sang lilting Moorish songs to his camels as I panted alongside. With Hamada translating again, he told me that although born in Timbuktu he now preferred the open desert. That place has too much traffic, too many people, too many headaches. Here was someone I could understand. I walked or rather trotted with Bouna and Mohamed for a couple of days, and before leaving to join U Batna and my own caravan I accepted their offer to rejoin them again a week later as we all approached Timbuktu. To my great disappointment, despite U Batnas best efforts, this never happened. The Sahara is a big place, and Bouna, his son and their 30 camels seemed to have disappeared off the face of it.
Meanwhile U Batna, Buttercup, Daisy and the Runt were waiting at the rendezvous as agreed. To me the spot was like a pebble on a pebble beach it had no distinguishing features whatsoever. Steering the pickup unerringly towards the totally flat horizon, Adei announced Five minutes to U Batna, and five minutes later there he was, dead ahead. I wish I could navigate like that!
It was a joy to be walking with my old friends again. Buttercup was now recognising me, and knelt down for me to load his goatskin bags without even being asked. Daisy remained aloof and supercilious as only a camel can be, and the Runt was as badly behaved as ever; but we were now more of a team and the daily cycle of loading, walking, tea-drinking and rice-cooking went like clockwork. It was a routine not much changed since the German adventurer Frederick Hornemann crossed the Sahara in 1799, surviving on flour, oil, cous-cous, onions, mutton suet and water, which he stored in goatskins stripped from the animal as entire as possible; those made at Soudan [the central southern Sahara] are the strongest and best; water may be preserved in them for five days, without acquiring any bad taste. At sunset he unloaded his bags, hobbled the camels and scoured the area for firewood and three stones. He then dug a saucer-shaped pit in the sand, started a fire and carefully balanced his cooking pot on the stones. More than 200 years later, U Batna and I were doing exactly the same.
On this final stage of the trip I took to experimenting a bit. One thing I was curious to test was a camels sense of smell. The story circulating among the tourists in Timbuktu was that you must never approach a camel carrying any trace of suncream, insect repellent, perfume or toothpaste. I took out the only such thing in my baggage a tube of striped toothpaste and waved it under Buttercups nose. He looked at it disdainfully but continued to munch his tussock grass without a pause.
We were on the home straight now, but it wasnt completely plain sailing. One morning a couple of boys unhobbled the camels and made off with them. Losing your camels in the desert is a serious matter, so I was relieved when U Batna said I know those lads. He took off in pursuit, returning an hour later with three bashful-looking camels. The boys were nowhere to be seen.
Approaching Timbuktu I was astonished to find the desert crowded and noisy. The same rolling dunes that three weeks previously had seemed pure and empty were now brimming with sheep, goats, donkeys, camels, cattle and, most surprisingly, a lush green sward of grass. Of course the desert itself hadnt changed it was me. Like all Saharan travellers Id quickly grown accustomed to the emptiness, to the silence and above all to a world that was totally beige. Armed with these new senses, my return to civilisation (if Timbuktu can be called that) was always going to be a bit of a shock. When you come from the south, Timbuktu is a dusty, fly-blown collection of mud-brick hovels. When you approach from the north, its a glistening metropolis whose streets fall only just short of being paved with gold.
Suddenly we were on the edge of town. People massed around us, a motorbike roared by, the camels shied nervously. U Batna guided us straight to Adeis compound where we quickly unloaded. Then without further ado he led the camels away. City streets, however sandy, were not to their liking. He would hobble them beyond the outskirts in a thicket of tussock grass.
And that was how the journey ended. I was to share several more glasses of ridiculously sweet tea with U Batna, but I never saw the camels again. At the Restaurant Poulet dOr the tourist season was well and truly over its tables stood abandoned in the blistering heat. Later Id be shocked to find that the Niger had shrunk to almost nothing a bad omen for my return upriver. But for now I strolled the streets of Timbuktu, marvelled at the well-stocked market, enjoyed the strange sensation of sitting in a chair and drinking from a cup, and looked forward to my first shower in nearly a month.