Timbuktu (Mali), April 2:

In the great Saharan desert, the extraction and transportation of salt is a business that has changed little since the middle ages, and camels continue to be an essential part of it.

On the edge of Timbuktu, in western Africa, where the city blends into the Sahara, a group of exhausted camels lie resting on the sand. The caravan of beasts, some 30 in total, arrived in Timbuktu after a five-week long trek through the Sahara. Most have carried four large discs of solidified salt each, a combined load of some 160 kg, the whole distance.

The journey has been an arduous one, both for the animals and for their human handlers, but the cargo, carried from a mine in the desert, is worth it. In days gone by salt here was as valuable as gold, and even today profit margins in the trade are over 100 per cent. The camels belong to Mohammed Bouge, whose family has been in the salt trade for generations. The 50-something camel drover has made countless trips between the mines and the city.

Daytime temperatures can reach 50 degrees, while the desert wind is also a force to contend with. “A caravan can consist of hundreds of animals. Sometimes we ride on top of the camels and sometimes we walk beside them.” The destination of the caravans is Taoudenni, a remote and inhospitable oasis some 700-km north of Timbuktu. The layers of underground salt deposits in the region are the remnants of dry lake beds.

On the outward trip, the caravans carry rice and millet for the workers in the mines. In Taoudemi, salt slabs are loaded on to camels’ backs using thin hide straps though they are well-protected by cushioning sacks of straw strapped to their flanks.

“In Taoudenni each slab costs about $4.60,” Mohammed says, “In Timbuktu we can sell them for twice that.” From Timbuktu, traders ship the slabs to Mopti, at the confluence of the rivers Niger and Bani, a distance of 400-km or three days by boat. Like Mohammed, Boubacar, another Ar-ab tribesman sits on straw mats under a low canopy, waiting patiently for customers. His salt sl-abs are stacked behind him, bo-und together with leather straps.