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Dying Trade Of The Sahara Camel Trade
BBC ^ | 10-22-2006 | John Pilkington

Posted on 10/22/2006 3:19:43 PM PDT by blam

Dying trade of the Sahara camel train

By John Pilkington
BBC News, Mali

A thousand years ago Sahara salt was worth its weight in gold

In Timbuktu, camel trains, that for millenia have been trudging around the Sahara with their valuable cargoes, are being replaced by the much less exotic lorry.

I have always been fascinated by the Sahara - so when I heard that camel caravans still make the 450-mile journey from the Taoudenni salt mines to Timbuktu, I decided to go and see if this was true.

What I found there was the stuff of dreams. Every week between November and February, caravans of up to 50 camels set out from Timbuktu on the month-long round trip.

Each camel brings back four huge slabs of salt, the so-called "white gold" of the Sahara.

A thousand years ago Sahara salt was literally worth its weight in gold, so the deposits at Taoudenni in what's now northern Mali must have been quite a find.

In Timbuktu I started looking for a guide and some camels of my own. This proved quite easy - Timbuktu is that sort of place - and soon I signed up with U Batna, an Arabic speaking Moor who was the proud owner of three good-looking beasts.

Posting from hell

Feeding the camels is a constant problem on the trip

U Batna was from one of the nomadic families who grazed sheep and goats on the spiky desert grass around Timbuktu, wrapped in his desert robes and turban scanning the horizon and puffing on his cow-bone pipe - he looked the perfect Lawrence of Arabia.

I could not speak Arabic but as the trip progressed he taught me all the words I needed to understand like "camel", "sand", "thirsty" and "keep walking".

There was no road - we just headed due north. Fodder for the camels was always a problem, and sometimes we would keep going long into the night looking for it, finally stopping to cook rice on camel-dung campfires and sleep under the stars.

On the other hand water was never a worry. As everyone knows, a camel can survive for a month without water, and I found that it can also carry up to 80 litres for its human companions - either in leather pouches (nicely traditional, but leaky) or in more watertight inner tubes from old car tyres.

After three weeks we arrived at Taoudenni and I was utterly shocked. This community of 120 men, one of the remotest on earth, had no houses, no fresh water, no medicines, no electricity, no telephone - not even any cooking fuel apart from camel dung.

A strong miner can produce around eight slabs of salt a day

A camel carcass lay putrefying in the open air. At this time of year, daytime temperatures are in the upper 30s Celsius. In summer they can reach 50 - that's more than a 120 degrees Fahrenheit. It is a posting from Hell.

But amazingly I found the salt miners friendly and happy to talk.

In medieval times they would have been slaves. Then in the 1960s they were political prisoners; now they are mostly self-employed desperadoes just trying to pay off debts.

I watched them hacking out the salt from a few feet under the surface, using crude axes in pits they had dug by hand.

On a good day a strong miner can produce perhaps eight 40 pound slabs, which the camel-drivers pay for in the time-honoured way by delivering one slab in every four to the miner's house in Timbuktu.

The markup in price between Taoudenni and Timbuktu is what gives both miners and camel-drivers a living.

A camel takes a month to make the round trip to Taoudenni

If all goes well, a top-grade slab will fetch £1.60 ($3) at the pit but four times this in Timbuktu.

But it does not always go well. When a camel bolts or is badly loaded the slabs get broken, greatly reducing their value. If one of the broken ones has been earmarked for a miner's house, that is the one that gets delivered. The camel-drivers pay no compensation - in fact no money changes hands at all.

New transport

Until lately the miners had no choice but to accept this unfair system, but now there is an alternative in the form of big lorries that have started to cross the desert.

A camel takes a month to make the round trip to Taoudenni - the lorries can do it in a week.

From the miners' point of view the lorry operators pay less per slab, but they pay on collection so cover the risk of breakages themselves. More importantly, they pay cash.

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.

From Timbuktu the salt is shipped up the River Niger

After saying my farewells to U Batna I joined one of the longboats, which are called "pinasses", and as we tied up on the Mopti waterfront I wondered about the future of the salt caravans.

Camels have the edge on lorries in that they do not need filling up with expensive diesel fuel.

This allows the caravans to bring in a decent profit and - literally - give the trucks a run for their money.

But will U Batna's sons and grandsons want to spend their lives coaxing these cantankerous animals across one of the most dangerous deserts on earth? Somehow, I doubt it.


TOPICS: News/Current Events
KEYWORDS: camel; godsgravesglyphs; sahara; trade; train

1 posted on 10/22/2006 3:19:45 PM PDT by blam
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To: SunkenCiv

FYI.


2 posted on 10/22/2006 3:20:12 PM PDT by blam
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To: blam

Fascinating. The ancient trade used to be salt for gold, or salt for slaves. The Africans around the Congo had no local sources for salt, and were desperate for it.


3 posted on 10/22/2006 3:31:04 PM PDT by Cicero (Marcus Tullius)
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To: blam
First the horse and buggy, then the manual typewriter and the dial phone, now the camel train. What will we do? What will we do?...
4 posted on 10/22/2006 3:38:24 PM PDT by 69ConvertibleFirebird (Never argue with an idiot. They drag you down to their level, then beat you with experience.)
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To: blam

great story- thanks


5 posted on 10/22/2006 3:43:39 PM PDT by silverleaf (Fasten your seat belts- it's going to be a BUMPY ride.)
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To: blam

Have you read Mark Kurlansky's book "Salt: A World History"?

Amazing how we take many things for granted today.


6 posted on 10/22/2006 3:45:40 PM PDT by Tijeras_Slim (Dancing through life like a street mime with tourettes syndrome.)
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To: blam

This is what I found out about camels...when we visited the Pyramids in Egypt, they are smelly and they bite.

7 posted on 10/22/2006 3:47:21 PM PDT by GRRRRR (Love America? Protect Her, VOTE GOP...they're better than nothing.)
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To: blam

Interesting read, thanks for posting.


8 posted on 10/22/2006 3:49:38 PM PDT by jazusamo (DIANA IREY for Congress, PA 12th District: Retire murtha.)
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To: 69ConvertibleFirebird

>>What will we do? What will we do?...


Time for a government bailout?


9 posted on 10/22/2006 3:52:44 PM PDT by teacherwoes ("It's not those who vote who are important; it's those who count the votes"- Josef Stalin)
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To: blam
The Texas Camel Corp! still rides the range.
10 posted on 10/22/2006 3:54:03 PM PDT by Young Werther
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To: silverleaf
Salt On A Magpie's Tail
11 posted on 10/22/2006 3:56:45 PM PDT by blam
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To: blam
Hmm. 40lbs of salt at Sam's Club runs $8.70, comes in handy 4lb containers, and doesn't smell of camel dung.
12 posted on 10/22/2006 4:00:47 PM PDT by kingu (No, I don't use sarcasm tags - it confuses people.)
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To: blam
...I joined one of the longboats, which are called "pinasses"...

I wonder if the author meant the word "pinnaces", or if this is some cognate?

13 posted on 10/22/2006 4:01:24 PM PDT by snowsislander
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To: teacherwoes
Time for a government bailout?

Is "Big Camel Train" considered evil? And will government officials be considered corrupt by bailing out Big Camel Train? Is camel dung from Big Camel Train an environmental hazard? Do Big Camel Train camel gas expulsions (f*rts) contribute to the "global warming" problem? Do Big Camel Train camel gas expulsions (f*rts) contribute to the "global cooling" problem? I think that we need the 9/11 commission to investigate first.

14 posted on 10/22/2006 4:02:59 PM PDT by 69ConvertibleFirebird (Never argue with an idiot. They drag you down to their level, then beat you with experience.)
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To: blam

And why don't they have Driver's Ed and Sex Ed on the same day?
Too hard on the camels.


15 posted on 10/22/2006 4:24:04 PM PDT by Abcdefg
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To: Tijeras_Slim
Have you read Mark Kurlansky's book "Salt: A World History"?

I read it as well as Kurlansky's book on Cod and have his book on the Basques in my TO READ pile. He's got another out on Oysters that I'll get to eventualy.

"Salt" was very informative but, in my judgement, way too long. He could have cut out at least 100 pages, or rather his editor SHOULD have cut at least 100 pages and maybe 200 from "Salt".

jas3
16 posted on 10/22/2006 4:29:59 PM PDT by jas3
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To: 69ConvertibleFirebird

Bill Clinton should buy a camel and keep it at home when Hillary isnt home he can look the camel in the face and be reminded of her


17 posted on 10/22/2006 4:31:24 PM PDT by mickey blue eyes
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To: Cicero

The word salary comes from the salt ration the Romans paid the legionnaires, considered a great perk.


18 posted on 10/22/2006 5:22:57 PM PDT by 1066AD
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To: blam

Camels are still in great demand as concubines for Bedouin savages.


19 posted on 10/22/2006 6:23:17 PM PDT by IronJack
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To: 1066AD
"The word salary comes from the salt ration the Romans paid the legionnaires, considered a great perk."

Yup. But, some of them weren't 'worth their salt.'

20 posted on 10/22/2006 6:47:59 PM PDT by blam
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To: blam; 1066AD

"Yup. But, some of them weren't 'worth their salt.'"

On the other hand, many of them were the 'salt of the earth.' 8)


21 posted on 10/22/2006 6:58:56 PM PDT by LibertarianInExile (When personal character isn't relevant to voters or party leaders, Foley happens.)
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To: LibertarianInExile
"On the other hand, many of them were the 'salt of the earth.' 8)"

...and it was said that some 'name's were Mudd'

22 posted on 10/22/2006 7:13:57 PM PDT by blam
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To: blam; FairOpinion; StayAt HomeMother; Ernest_at_the_Beach; 24Karet; 3AngelaD; ...
Thanks Blam. I wonder if there's still strong demand for Lucky Strike? Yeah, you're right, I should try to filter out that kind of humor. But regardless, I have some sympathy for these traders who are still carton all that salt around.

To all -- please ping me to other topics which are appropriate for the GGG list. Thanks.
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23 posted on 10/22/2006 8:27:28 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Dhimmicrati delenda est! https://secure.freerepublic.com/donate/)
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To: blam
In medieval times they would have been slaves.

The BBC can't make the simplest statements without an agenda, as in the line above which tries to convince us that slavery in the Sahara was something that happened only in "medieval times."

24 posted on 10/22/2006 8:36:10 PM PDT by denydenydeny ("We have always been, we are, and I hope that we always shall be detested in France"--Wellington)
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To: SunkenCiv
"Thanks Blam. I wonder if there's still strong demand for Lucky Strike? Yeah, you're right, I should try to filter out that kind of humor."

Own the Lucky Strike package were these letters LSMFT, "Luck Strike means fine tobacco". My grandad said they stood for: "Lord Save Me From Truman".

25 posted on 10/22/2006 8:45:08 PM PDT by blam
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To: Young Werther; Borax Queen

Thanks for the info about Texas. The ones they shipped to Califonia didn't work out so well.

While the camel does well in sand, the rocky deserts of California played havoc on their feet.


26 posted on 10/22/2006 9:00:37 PM PDT by investigateworld (Abortion stops a beating heart)
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To: blam

"LSMFT" also is quoted in "Knock Knock", one of Spike Jones' masterpieces. ;')


27 posted on 10/22/2006 9:02:43 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (Dhimmicrati delenda est! https://secure.freerepublic.com/donate/)
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To: investigateworld

Thank you for the ping :)


28 posted on 10/24/2006 7:16:43 PM PDT by Borax Queen
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To: Borax Queen
Reports from that era indicate one of the beasts died near Barstow and one a few miles from Daggett (Fishponds).
To this very day, locals in those areas hammer down as much beer as they can.

I mean the place could kill a camel?
29 posted on 10/25/2006 12:01:50 AM PDT by investigateworld (Abortion stops a beating heart)
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30 posted on 09/15/2008 9:44:06 PM PDT by SunkenCiv (https://secure.freerepublic.com/donate/_______Profile hasn't been updated since Friday, May 30, 2008)
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