Salt caravans in the Sahara, resistance or death

It is still possible to find salt for sale in the markets of the Sahel and Saharan cities such as Gao, Timbuktu, Agadez or Kalait. And on our expeditions in northern Chad in winter, it is not uncommon to meet salt caravans. A traditional mode of transport that does not give up in the 21st century. Today we tell you about its history and our experience.

Sahara salt: source of life

Men and herds in the southern part of the great desert consume salt in large quantities. Without salt, as without water, large living beings cannot live. It is impossible to stay hydrated without mineral salts running through our veins, and it is also impossible to preserve meat and fish in the torrid climate of the Sahara and the Sahel.

We should also remember that the expression “salary” (wage) comes from Roman times, when workers were paid with salt.

The salt of the Sahara is not the kind we are used to seeing in our shops. In the Sahara it is compacted and takes the form of large loaves, sometimes in the shape of a cone (kantus), sometimes in the form of round or square blocks.

Its colour is also not as expected. Ochre-coloured salt is mixed with earth and is intended for animals. White salt is usually for human consumption.

To our eyes, if no one warns you of this detail, it will go somewhat unnoticed in the markets, but this is the traditional way of preparing it to travel in the camels’ saddlebags without the risk of it spilling along the way.

sale of salt blocks in Gao
Sale of salt blocks from salt caravans in the city of Gao, Mali.

In Chad we have seen a much more primitive version. There the salt rocks are not shaped at all. They are just randomly broken rocks, but never ground.

salt rocks in the chad desert
Emptying a salt saddlebag in Chad – Salt caravans

The camel herders of the Sahara say that their salt is much better than that of the sea because it has all the properties needed to give life. According to them, animals that eat little salt suffer from loss of vision and general weakening. In reality, it is 90% iodised, whereas sea salt requires further processing.

Where does this salt come from? There are salt pans all over the Sahara and the Sahel. They are depressions of brackish soil that are occasionally flooded. They are remnants of the ancient seabed of which there are also fossils throughout the Sahara. This is the natural gold that has served the few humans who have inhabited the desert since time immemorial.

Famous salt sources include Taudenni in Mali, Amadror in Algeria, Lake Chad, Faya or the Mourdi region in Chad, Idjil in Mauritania and Bilma in Niger.

The salt pans in these places have been well known for many centuries and are still active. For example, it is said that in the Bilma oasis about half of the inhabitants are salt miners. Many choose not to emigrate, either because they cannot afford it or because they want to carry on the tradition. They dedicate themselves to a job that has less and less market, but they resist.

The history of the salt caravans

Ibn Battuta, the famous traveller of the Middle Ages, spoke of salt caravans. Salt caravans existed long before Arab chroniclers such as Battuta spoke of them, but the earliest written and therefore historical records of this trading tradition date back to the 14th century. Thanks to them, it is believed that its golden age began in the 9th century.

👉 We recommend this article from the website Al Andalus y la Historia, which delves into the history of the caravan routes of the Sahara and the Sahel.

At the Bilma oasis, one of those places we dream of in Kumakonda, salt workers dive barefoot into the shallow pools or pits where salt crystals float. Under an inclement sun, with temperatures easily exceeding 40°C, they dig to fill the moulds where the white gold is pressed.

In Chad’s salt pans, it is the women who are responsible for extracting the salt rocks from the ground.

Ennedi trips
Demi salt flats (Chad) – Salt caravans

When the caravanners arrive, everything has to be ready. It is time to load the camels and prepare to set off across hundreds of kilometres of desert to reach the main markets. Their price, of course, increases with every kilometre travelled. It is not for nothing that the camel drivers risk their lives and those of their animals.

There are about 800km between Timbuktu and Taudenni, and about 600km between the Ténére tree and Bilma. At this tree (the original was knocked down by a truck and there is now a metal sculpture that serves as a landmark) is the last well before crossing the great plain.

Survival depends on the ability to identify details in the landscape that serve to maintain direction. And on the ability to ration food and water. A huge responsibility that falls on the guides, people well trained to read the desert and, at least in the old days, very well paid.

Nomads Ennedi
One of our group among the camels of one of the salt caravans crossing the Mourdi Depression in Chad.

In the 1950s, the salt caravans were of gigantic proportions. The Bilma caravan is said to have had 28,000 camels carrying 2,350 tonnes of salt and almost 500 tonnes of dates in 1953, and the Taoudenni caravan was made up of 40,000 camels carrying 160,000 bars of salt in 1958.

But in the past, salt caravans did not only transport this indispensable foodstuff. In fact, this was the solution adapted to the desert, and with them also went other goods: grain, dried meat, cloth, tea, sugar, gold, books, and even people who needed to make these journeys with some protection from the bandits on the road. Not to mention slaves.

salt caravans
Salt caravans in Chad

Let’s stop for a moment and look at the books. With the caravans travelled scholars and books that brought together the knowledge of the world. The fantastic libraries of Timbuktu and Chingetti, for example, were formed and nourished by the caravans. Medieval treatises on astronomy, medicine, philosophy and many other subjects, as well as, of course, the “word of God”, the Koran, were brought there.

The huge libraries guarded by the descendants of those traders have survived all kinds of attacks, including those of the jihadists, although of course there have always been irreparable losses. Another example of resistance in the Sahara.

When and why did the decline of the salt caravans begin?

In the years 1972-1974 and 1983-1984 there were severe droughts that prevented the caravans from leaving. They did not have enough fodder to ensure the survival of animals and men, so it would have been suicide to cross the desert in such conditions.

However, as the family economies of the saliners had to be saved and the demand for salt at their destinations had to be met, lorries were used.

It was the beginning of the end. Camel caravans still exist on certain routes, but their numbers and frequency have plummeted. It is difficult to compete with vehicles that are able to do the same route in a few days rather than weeks. However, caravans have much more flexible costs and therefore price bargaining power than companies and administrations.

Nowadays, traditional salt trucks and caravans face bandits stealing their mobile phones and money. They also face sandstorms and engine breakdowns in the case of the former, so it is not uncommon to find the occasional truck loaded with salt blocks abandoned in the sand.

natron salt truck breaks down in the desert
Broken down natron salt truck in the Mourdi Depression, Chad

Salt caravans in Chad

As we said at the beginning, on our winter expeditions we often come across salt caravans along the way. In fact, on the December 2023 expedition we came across at least 30 caravans, which is truly incredible.

This activity can only be seen in autumn and winter and, in our experience, only in December and January, when temperatures are much milder and the harmattan storms that occur from February onwards have not yet started.

As we said, times have changed and in the 21st century most salt caravans transport salt for the consumption of their own livestock. Trade routes are not what they used to be.

salt caravans
Loaded camels crossing the Ennedi – Salt caravans

Chad has salt flats scattered throughout most of its geography. From Lake Chad to the Mourdi Depression, the Ounianga Lakes region and in the Borkou province. In total there are four or five routes that are travelled by the Gorane, Arabs and Zahawha, the dominant population in these regions.

Perhaps a distinctive feature of Chad compared to other countries is that it is often the women who work for a meagre wage: 5,000 CFAs, about €7.5. But if the salt is collected by camel drivers, they don’t have to pay anything and they don’t earn it either.

Today, caravan traffic is mostly organised by families. In other words, each family sets up its own caravan and sets off once a year for one of the salt flats. Without this, their livestock could not survive, and the option of going to the markets to buy salt is out of the question. The price is really high.

But we can speak of two major active ethnic groups: the Gorane and the Zaghawa.

  • Gorane is a Tubu word for different groups including the Anakassa, Daza or Kreda.
  • The Zaghawa come from Bao and Anjaras, on the border with Sudan, where the current President of Chad (2023) is from.

We have also come across another modality: some salt caravans are organised cooperatively among the inhabitants of a village. In these cases, the journey is also annual, with the men gathering with their camels for an expedition lasting several weeks.

salt caravans
Salt caravans in Chad

We said that most salt caravans are organised for their own consumption, but we have recently discovered that some salt caravans still make the journey to trade salt in the markets of Kalait and even Abéché, many kilometres away from the salt pans. In such cases, they keep part of the product (between 20% and 50%) and exchange the rest for millet and other products they will need to get through the year. A trade based on barter.

The day-to-day life of a salt caravan

Camel drivers usually set off very early in the morning. During the morning they walk with their animals for four hours. Then they stop to pray, eat and rest. They continue in the afternoon for another four hours, until nightfall. The stops are made at the water points that they have located and which they usually repeat year after year in a journey that can last more than a month.

rest of one of the salt caravans
Resting of one of the salt caravans encountered on our travels.

The diet of these people is based on millet balls mixed with okra and dried tomatoes. A diet that is supplemented with dates, tea, and a maize porridge for breakfast.

In the evenings the group gathers around the fire and tell stories or even listen to music if they have an instrument.

young cameleer with stringed instrument
Young camel driver with a stringed instrument made from a saucepan – Salt Caravans

The dromedaries of the salt caravans are different from the “mehari” used by the lords for riding and warfare.

These animals are used to walking enormous distances in the processional arrangement that we all associate with the image of a caravan. They often wear muzzles to prevent them from eating the mats or palm-leaf ropes carried by the camel in front of them. Always male because they are more resistant, they carry around 80-100 kg in each saddlebag, i.e. 160-200 kg in total.

salt caravans in ennedi
Accompanying a caravan at sunset in Ennedi – Salt caravans

Traditional saddlebags are made of leather and decorated with metal patterns and rivets, although this custom is being lost in favour of plastic and other modern materials. In addition, it is still possible to see cameleers using gri-gris to protect their animals from djinn or jinn.

Details that are being lost over time and with the new generations, although there is always a romantic who prefers to safeguard them.

decorated camel carrier's saddlebag
Antique saddlebag with traditional decoration – Salt caravans

In terms of proportions, we are no longer dealing with the caravans of hundreds or thousands of camels of yesteryear, although they are still impressive. One of the last ones we have recorded consisted of 50 camels and 8 people.

The image of the camels marching in procession is so attractive that we never give up stopping and taking pictures after greeting the camel drivers.

They are hospitable people, like Abdala, who was leading a caravan we came across in October 2020. He greeted us with a huge smile and filled our hands and pockets with dates, as well as offering us tea. We will never forget him.

One wonders how long we will continue to encounter salt caravans in the Sahara, but as long as they exist, as long as they resist, we will drink to them.

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