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Tuareg Salt Caravans

Listed under Traditional Cultures in Niger.

  • Photo of Tuareg Salt Caravans
  • Photo of Tuareg Salt Caravans
  • Photo of Tuareg Salt Caravans
  • Photo of Tuareg Salt Caravans
  • Photo of Tuareg Salt Caravans
  • Photo of Tuareg Salt Caravans
  • Photo of Tuareg Salt Caravans
  • Photo of Tuareg Salt Caravans
Photo of Tuareg Salt Caravans
Photo by flickr user http2007
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In the desert animals and men loose salt as well as moisture, yet so valuable a commodity for survival wasn’t readily available to the Tuareg people of Niger. Instead, since the late first millennium, they have been saddling their camel caravans and crossing the Tenere Desert to the Bilma Oasis to barter millet, maize, beans and cheese for salt pillars and dates.

The journey from Agadez, where the caravans gather in preparation for the bi-annual October departures, to Bilma and back takes about three weeks. Only enough feed to keep camel and man going is carried, so good time has to be made. Once they set out in caravans 20,000 camels strong, stretching 25kms behind the leaders, but now the tradition has dwindled down to smaller groups, but the route and pace haven’t changed. The oceanic dunes of the Tenere lead the way, by staying in the same ridge the lay of the sand keeps the caravans on the right path, which is why the trade was so successful. Once on the dunes the pace is constant and the caravans move from dawn to dusk, covering about 50kms a day. At night the camels are unloaded and their loads made into a sand break. A hot supper and tea are quickly and greedily put together, then there is nothing but the ancient stories and the even more ancient stars for entertainment and company.

Is this a romantic, historic tradition being killed off by modern inventions? Not really, the very best, purest salt, which is made by a natural process of evaporating brine in deep pits, is still kept aside for the Tuareg and at Bilma bartering for goods is still more popular than paying for them.

Few extra people are welcomed on these ancient and traditional journeys, but with the right guide and careful planning you can be part of this fading, but still very real adventure.

Written by  Kat Mackintosh.

Comments, reviews and questions by other travellers

Salt is necessary for Sahelian domestic animals as well as it are in short supply also it is a restricted deposit collective with weighty consumption ensuring money-making markets.

Each winter Tuareg caravans cross Niger's Tenere desert to fetch salt from the Bilma oasis and barter millet for dates. Salt is indispensable for Sahelian livestock and scarce local deposits combined with heavy consumption ensure profitable markets.

1 Reply

Are there any pathways though the desert or do they have maps, or does the sandy landscape change too much to go by anything other than the sun and stars?

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