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Day 53: Timbuktu

Michael Palin - SaharaThe camels draw closer, moving with a careful gait, noses upturned, as if finding the whole thing intensely distasteful. On every one of their backs are slung two glittering silver-grey slabs of salt. I half expect to find commandments written on their sides. In fact, the only inscription on the tablets is the name of the owner, marked in red dye.

Mohammed greets the leader of the caravan, and whilst they talk the camels fold themselves gratefully down onto the sand, like collapsible tables, front legs first, back legs folded in neatly beneath their behinds. In motion and in repose these are graceful animals; it's just the bit in between that's a mess.

The blocks of salt they carry each weigh around 50 kilograms, over 100 pounds, so those camels with four on their backs would have been hauling almost a quarter of a ton of salt across the desert, fourteen hours a day, for the past three weeks. No wonder they are so happily sighing, gurgling, chomping and farting their
appreciation at having arrived in Timbuktu. I wonder if they instinctively knew that the end was in sight, could perhaps sniff the waters of the Niger, onto which their burdens would soon be transferred and shipped downstream to the markets of sub-Saharan Africa.

The bad news is that, after talking to the leader of the caravan, Mohammed establishes that, with high summer and infernal temperatures just beginning, no more salt caravans will be entering or leaving Timbuktu for several months. If we really want to travel with a camel train, we will do better to head east, where there is still a regular salt run across the Ténéré Desert between Agadez and Bilma. I have read about the Ténéré. Set almost at the centre of the Sahara, it has a reputation for stark beauty and fierce heat.

Back at the hotel, my resolve falters. No-one, I'm firmly assured, will be in the heart of the desert in high summer. The nomads move south and will not return until after the rains, which will render much of the route impassable until they end in August and September.

So we decide to follow the ancient desert ritual of migration and return home. We shall use an English summer to cool off until the Saharan summer has burnt itself out.
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 53
  • Country/sea: Mali
  • Place: Timbuktu
  • Book page no: 160

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