Page last updated at 18:47 GMT, Thursday, 3 December 2009

Timbuktu's ancient salt caravans under threat

A man sits infront of piles of salt at a market in Mail
The salt trade is seen as a necessary part of tradition in parts of Mali

By Andrew Harding
BBC News, Timbaktu, Mali

With a long, gurgling groan, Lakhmar fell awkwardly to his knees in the roasting hot sand outside the town of Timbuktu.

For the past six years he has been making the same gruelling trek across the Sahara desert to the salt mines of Taoudenni in northern Mali.

But each journey is becoming more of a struggle.

Lakhmar, a 10-year-old male camel with a metal ring in his flaring right nostril, left it to his owner, Boujima Handak, to explain their predicament.

Whenever I see a lorry take the salt I am very upset
Halis al-Hassane

"It's getting more difficult because the rains aren't coming, the oases are drying up and the camels get tired and thirsty and can't continue," he said, unloading a grey-brown, 50kg slab of crystallised salt, the size of an ironing board, from Lakhmar's back.

Camel caravans have been plying their trade between Taoudenni and Timbuktu for centuries.

It is a rite of passage for young, blue-turbaned nomads from the local Tuareg community.

Ancient lake

The miners themselves work for six months at a time, in one of the planet's hottest and most forbidding environments.

They use homemade wooden clubs to carve the blocks of salt from the dried-up bed of an ancient lake.


Camels have been used to transport salt over long distances for decades

But today a changing climate, and the arrival of modern technology, is threatening the future of one of the world's oldest and most resilient trading traditions.

Towards dusk, a muffled roar escaped from a mud-walled compound on the dusty outskirts of Timbuktu.

Inside, Sheik Ould Bekay was issuing orders to half a dozen men who had nearly finished loading a flat-bed truck with provisions for the trip to Taoudenni.

Mr Bekay used to do the same journey in a caravan of more than 200 camels.

It took 45 days to make the round-trip; by truck he can do it in 10 days - provided his gearbox does not fail again.

"I don't want to use a truck but my camels just couldn't cope any more carrying 200 kilos of salt and with not enough rain," he said.

Four years ago, he sold all but a handful of his camels and bought a truck.

Many of his colleagues have followed suit.

Unfair competition?

The trucks have now taken over more than half of the trade, and because they can carry so much more their profits have soared, enabling Mr Bekay to build himself a two-storey stone and mud house.

traders load blocks of salt into a truck in Mali
Trucks are quicker and more efficient but not as picturesque

In Timbuktu's salt market the blocks (occasionally stained brown with camel's blood from the long journey) are sawn down into smaller chunks to be sold locally or sent onwards whole by truck or camel to southern Mali and beyond.

The salt trade used to be a buyer's market - with the miners forced to wait for months at a time for the next camel convoy to arrive.

But the arrival of lorries has changed the balance of power and the salt miners are now charging more.

Prices have doubled in the past two years.

"Whenever I see a lorry take the salt I am very upset," said Halis al-Hassane, who has run camel caravans for the past decade.


He acknowledges that "we really have no choice because every year the drought is becoming more difficult."

But he worries about the impact it will have on the region's nomadic culture.

"For Tuareg, the salt caravan is not something just for money, it is tradition," he explained.

"If in your life you do not do it once or twice you are not considered Tuareg. So for me [the trucks mean] the end of Tuareg culture. I am not saying the camels will disappear, because some Tuareg will always stay in the desert and travel for other reasons, but I'm very worried that in three to five years all the salt caravans will be by truck."

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