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Tuesday, 01 September 2009

Into the Sahara: Timbuktu - Page 4

Written by James Michael Dorsey
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The blowing sand rocks our Land Rover as we reach the outskirts of Timbuktu.

Mahkmoud leans over the steering wheel and peers into the hazy lemon yellow that fills our windshield.  There is no horizon between earth and sky and I wonder how he can continue to drive with no reference points, yet on he goes with the instinct of a desert nomad.  I realize for him, this is normal.

Each camel is tethered to the tail of the one in front of him by a nose halter allowing one or two drivers to control more than 200 of them at a time.  They move at a slow and steady gate, chewing their cuds as they lumber on.

This strip of the southern Sahara has been a caravan route at least since the time of Jesus.  The men and boys driving these camels were born to this, as were their fathers and great, great grandfathers. Halis will later tell me a Tuareg boy must make this trip at least once to be counted a man, and he himself has done it seven times.  Salt was once money in this part of the world and is still a valued commodity, so much so that those not willing to mine it are more than willing to take it at gunpoint.  Two of the drivers carry ancient muzzle loading rifles that would be more at home in a museum, yet out here may be the difference between life and death.

Into the Sahara: Timbuktu, Arawan, travel to Timbuktu, Dromedary camels, Tuareg, The Blue Men of the Sahara, ancient Berber tribe, southern Morocco, through Mauritania, eastern Mali, James Michael DorseyThe camels are halted and their tenders begin the arduous task of unloading the heavy salt blocks.  Each camel sits with its legs folded underneath waiting to have its burden temporarily lifted, protesting every human touch with the foulest sounding guttural noises.  They are left untethered for they have nowhere to go and will not leave their food source.

Long sprouts of grain are spread on the sand for them to eat but they will get no water.  Having just drunk three days prior, it would be a waste at this point.  Halis says the camels can go three weeks without water this time of year but when it gets hotter they must drink every week.  When they do drink, they will consume 100 gallons of water in 10 minutes.

I marvel at these perfectly adapted creatures that carry unbelievable loads up to 40 miles a day.  When they rest on the hot sand, hard calluses on their elbows and knees keep them from burning.  Their nostrils lock shut during sand storms and their long lashes protect their eyes from blowing sand.  They store fat in their hump, not water as is commonly believed, and have extra thick lips to allow the ingestion of thorny desert plants.  When times are tough, they have been known to eat animal skin and bones and can digest almost anything.  They are indeed, “ships of the Desert “and one tries to bite me when I get too close, proving what I have heard about their nasty temperament.

With the wind increasing I fear becoming lost in a white out.  I am almost two miles from Arawan and have limited vision.  I tuck my cameras under my robes and put my head down into the wind, making for the nearest shelter before it is too late.

When I return, the sun is setting and a small fire is burning between two buildings.  Tea is on the brazier and the evenings story telling has already begun.  I sit with my back to a wall and watch the firelight dance on the faces around me.  They are faces out of the bible, ancient, weathered and wise. Tea is passed around and pipes are lit.  Looking up at the stars I realize this scene would be no different if it took place a thousand years ago.

© James Michael Dorsey

(Page 4 of 4)
Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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