May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

Outside magazine, October 1997


It had been said that no outsider would ever see the legendary salt mines of Mali and live to describe them; ever slip into the Caravan of White Gold, evade the slaughtering bandits, suffer the killing storms, and lay eyes upon the nightmarish landscape of 1,000 pits gouged by hand from the Saharan plain. Phooey.
By Tim Cahill

"Teem, wake up. There are some bandits."

An Italian — I don't recall which one — was standing over my sleeping bag and nudging my foot with his. It was about ten o'clock on a cool, clear February night in the Sahara, and I had been asleep for half an hour.


"Some bandits have followed us up from Kidal. We have to go back to Aguelhok."

"Tuaregs?" I asked.

"Muhammad said they came from Kidal."

Muhammad, our recently hired security consultant, was a Tuareg himself. Kidal was a Tuareg town. But then again, so was Aguelhok.

I struggled out of my sleeping bag and stumbled around for a few groggy minutes in the dark. We were about three miles west of Aguelhok in the West African country of Mali and a couple hundred miles north of the Niger River, camped near the central trans-Saharan road leading north to Algeria. This was to be the last stop before a high-speed run to the historic and formerly forbidden salt mines at Taoudenni, which — we didn't know — might not even exist anymore.

Our motorized caravan was parked amid a huge jumble of rocks that had probably formed the narrows of a swift-flowing, ancient river. The rocks were black, river-rounded, the size of large trucks, and many were festooned with drawings of creatures that must have existed here in a forgotten time when the sun-blasted sandscape was a vast and fertile grassland. There were drawings of an elephant, an eland, an ostrich. Giraffes seemed to have been considered the most consequential of the animals depicted. There were two of them etched in ocher onto flat, black rock, set just above the sand as if in a gallery. The figures were five feet high and expertly rendered. Riding beside one of the giraffes was a man on horseback, reining his mount and preparing to throw a spear. There were already four spears in the giraffe.

I had planned to study the rock art in the morning, along with my favorite among the Italians, Luigi Boschian. Gigi, as everyone called him, was the oldest in our group, 67, but nonetheless a strong walker who wanted no help clambering over the rocks and who seemed always to know where he was when we strolled through the desert together. Our bond was this: Gigi and I were interested in the same things — history, astronomy, archaeology, geology, anthropology — the difference between us being that he had taken the trouble to do an immense amount of reading in these areas.

"I can no longer guarantee your safe passage to the mines," Muhammad said. We'd offered him $400, a year's wages."Maybe," Dario said, "this is more serious than I thought."

Our common language was Spanish, though neither of us spoke with precision, which was sometimes frustrating. I wondered, for instance, if the men on horseback depicted on the rocks could be the ancestors of the Tuareg people who now populated the deserts of northern Mali, Niger, and southern Algeria. When I asked Gigi about it, he started at the beginning, as he tended to do. Present-day Tuaregs were the descendants of North African Berbers, who invaded the central Sahara about 3,500 years ago. They were originally horsemen, but as the climate changed and the desert claimed the land, the horse gave way to the camel. And wasn't it interesting that while the Berbers had used chariots, the use of the wheel was eventually abandoned? Camels were the better technology.
The "human sword" sneaking through the alleys of Aguelhok

In the course of his explanations, Gigi often got sidetracked, wandering off on some tangent or other and dithering there for half an hour at a crack. He wore desert khakis, neatly pressed, but a shirttail was always out or a pant leg stuck into a sock. His abundant white hair was properly combed in the morning, but by noon it had degenerated into a finger-in-the-light-socket situation I'd describe as a full Einstein. He was the quintessential absentminded professor, Italian style. In explanation mode, he held his hands in front of his chest, palms up and open, as if weighing a pair of melons. When our mutual incompetence in Spanish defeated us, he'd turn his palms over and drop them to his waist, as if patting two small children on the head. I thought of this as Gigi's I-can-speak-no-more futility gesture.

Now, with bandits presumably chasing us, we had to abandon the rock art.

I gathered my gear, lurched down the sand slope, and began helping with the loads. Our caravan consisted of three four-wheel-drive, one-ton vehicles modified in this manner or that for hard overland desert driving. Lanterns were glowing, and our party of just over a dozen — three West Africans from the land below the Niger River, two local Tuaregs, a cacophony of Italians, myself, and photographer Chris Rainier — was moving very fast, stashing the gear any old way because it was thought the bandits were now very close.

We'd been half expecting the bastards.

No Guarantees

Aguelhok was a small, wind-scoured town of narrow, sandy streets and adobe buildings, none of which would look out of place in Taos, New Mexico. We pulled our vehicles into a large walled courtyard that seemed to be a municipal gathering place, locked ourselves behind the metal gates, and milled around in the dark, unwilling to sleep.

One of the Italians, Dario, said, "Bandits? Ha. They want us to stay here so we have to pay." Dario, I'd guess, was in his early forties, a trim, athletic man I could see snapping out orders in a corporate boardroom.

Muhammad, the Tuareg security consultant we'd hired and the man who'd told us about the bandits, was talking to our Italian guide, Alberto Nicheli.

"I can no longer guarantee you safe passage to the salt mines," he said.

"You could this afternoon," Alberto said.

"That was before the car followed you up from Kidal."

"We can't pay you if you don't come," Alberto explained.

"This is no matter," Muhammad said.

I caught Dario's eye. We'd offered Muhammad $400 for two weeks' work; $400 is the average annual income in Mali.

"Maybe," Dario said, "this is more serious than I thought."

Seeing this medieval anachronism — the Caravan of White Gold — could be the experience of a lifetime. You just didn't want it to be the last experience of a lifetime.

Gigi motioned to me. He had a map draped over the hood of the Land Rover and was displaying what can only be described, given the circumstances, as a singular lack of urgency while he traced the course of the Niger River with a finger. Could I see how it flowed east, starting in the highlands to the west, and then humped north into the Sahara like a hissing cat before turning back south and east to empty into the Atlantic at the Bight of Benin? And here, perched on top of the northern hump of the river, was Timbuktu. Geography made it the great trading city of antiquity. North African Arabs from the Mediterranean coast brought trade goods south, through the desert, while the black African kingdoms sent gold north from the forests and mountains. They met in Timbuktu.
Refueling the modern caravan, as the outsiders roll toward the mines

The caravans started about the time of Christ. Around a.d. 1100, Arabs began bringing salt down from the desert to trade in Timbuktu. Salt, used to preserve and flavor food, was then a rare spice, as much in demand in certain circles as cocaine is today, and equally expensive. It was traded weight for weight with gold in the Middle Ages, and for centuries the camel train bringing salt south to Timbuktu was called the Caravan of White Gold.

And while all this was happening, Gigi explained as he weighed a pair of melons in his hands, the climate was changing, changing, changed. The giraffe-littered grassland became a desert, and the Tuareg nomads became great warriors who preyed on the caravans. They developed the mehari camel — the ultimate medieval desert-war machine — a tall, elegant beast with an elongated back that allowed riders to sit in front of the hump, down low, in sword's reach of horsemen and those fleeing on foot.

The Tuaregs, not unreasonably, sought tolls and tributes from the caravans passing through their desert. The Arab caravans — 1,000 camel operations and more — were loose confederations of traders, and they did not band together for mutual defense in the manner of American wagon trains facing hostile Indians in John Wayne movies. Tuareg raiders simply rode along with caravans, located the weakest groups, cut them out of the train, and took what they wanted. These affairs were most often bloody.

Today Tuaregs are considered the finest camel breeders and riders on earth. They live the romance of their past, still herding goats, pursuing a nomadic lifestyle, and dressing as they have throughout the whole of recorded history. The men most often wear blue robes — they are sometimes called the Blue Men of the Desert — and blue or black chêches, ten-foot-long strips of cloth that are wrapped around the head and neck and can be pulled up over the nose to protect the face from blowing sand. The chêche can also be used as a mask, which is no small advantage for those engaged in the business of banditry.

The Arab rode into camp with four or five men. "Your missing friend," is staying with some people." The Arab explained he could buy Gigi back for us. For $1,000.

An Ambush

We had started in Gao, on the Niger River, where there was a paved street or two, a market, and crowds of people clamoring for a cadeau, a gift. Moving slowly through the streets was a plethora of white Toyota Land Cruisers, all of them belonging to various aid agencies. My traveling companion, Chris, talked with a woman from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who said things in northern Mali were settling down nicely. The six-year Tuareg rebellion against the central government in Bamako was essentially over. The rebels had signed a peace treaty in Timbuktu in March 1996, during a ceremony in which 3,000 weapons were burned in a great bonfire.

The droughts of the eighties and early nineties had helped fuel the rebellion, and the government had taken a unique step designed to feed hungry people: Former Tuareg rebels were allowed to enlist in the Malian army. The pay these soldiers earned fed large extended families. In effect, the Malian government had bought off the insurrection.

Which wasn't to say that everything was hunky-dory. The Tuareg rebels were actually a loosely aligned group of several different desert factions — the Popular Movement of this town, the People's Army of that area — and not all of them were in agreement with the peace treaty. Some, it was said, were still fighting. Plus, the army hadn't been able to take every former rebel who wanted a job, so there were still some bands of hard men in the desert, former rebels who were in fact out-and-out bandits.

The woman from the UN told Chris that about a month ago, bandits had ambushed several UNHCR workers, stolen their car, stripped them naked, and driven off. It was winter, and the workers were more likely to freeze to death at night than bake to death in the day. Besides, they weren't far from town, and everyone got back all right, so there wasn't any harm done.

"What town was that?" Chris asked.


The Sleeping Colonel

The Trans-Saharan Highway from Gao to Kidal was a thin red line on the map, and the line was a lie. There was no road, only a number of braided tracks in the sand, all of them running vaguely northeast and littered with the rusted and half-buried hulks of vehicles that had surrendered to the desert. In Kidal, a sprawling town of adobe houses only slightly darker than the surrounding sand, we tried to speak with the governor, the army commander, anyone who could give us information on the security situation. We wanted to go to the salt mines. Was it safe? Few answers were forthcoming.

One morning, Alberto, Chris, and I walked the red-dust streets to the largest house in town. It was said to be owned by Colonel Yat, the man thought to be the instigator of the Tuareg rebellion, a fellow, we imagined, who might have some cogent thoughts about security.

Pass the salt: Precious salt is freed from the earth, as has
been done for a millennium

The house had a high-walled courtyard punctuated by a pair of large metal doors wide enough to admit a good-size truck. We knocked for a long time until a gentleman inside opened one of the doors a crack. He wore threadbare black pants, a tattered red tunic, a black chêche, and rubber flip-flops. His right foot was terribly twisted. We were admitted into a large flagstone courtyard, where dozens of small trees had recently been planted. A satellite TV emblazoned with the RadioShack logo stood to one side of the house near several dozen 55-gallon drums of gasoline. A white Land Cruiser — the modern equivalent of the mehari camel — was parked in front of the door. There was a bullet hole just below the backseat on the driver's side.

One tended to speculate about such vehicles. In June 1990, after soldiers massacred several Tuaregs at a famine-refugee camp just over the border in Niger, rebels ambushed a team of aid workers, stole their Land Cruiser, and used it to attack the town of Mënaka, killing 14 Malian policemen. They escaped with guns and ammunition, and the rebellion was on. Soon there was fighting on the streets of Gao and on the blazing plain of Tanezrouft. Those are the facts. The legend is this: Colonel Yat, the man we had come to see, planned and executed the initial attacks.

The Toyota in the courtyard was white, like most aid agency cars, with a thin red stripe, and it did not carry a Malian license plate. I thought it might be a car with some history to it.

The house itself was unlike anything else in Kidal. It was a large, poured-cement building with flowing Moorish lines, painted brown and white. The man with the twisted foot knocked on an ornately carved wooden door. We stood there for some time until we were admitted by an almost preternaturally handsome Tuareg man who looked to be in his midthirties. He was about six feet tall, slender, wearing black slacks and gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses. His black chêche covered his mouth but not his neatly trimmed black mustache, and what we could see of his skin was that curious Tuareg color of charcoal and milk. He looked like a human sword. No names were given. No handshakes.

We said we'd like to speak with Colonel Yat, if it was possible. Wordlessly, the man turned, motioned for us to follow, and led us across highly polished wood floors to a large dark room completely bare of furniture except for five mattresses pushed against the two far walls. Colonel Yat, we were given to understand, was the man-shaped lump under a sheet on one of the mattresses. It was late in the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan-no food or drink between sunrise and sunset — and the colonel was resting.

In whispers, we said that we could come back later, after sunset, when the colonel had refreshed himself. The man in sunglasses stared at us without expression. Colonel Yat stirred on his mattress and propped himself up on an elbow. He called out. His voice sounded sleep-clogged.

The slender Tuareg walked over, squatted by the bed, and exchanged a few words with the colonel. He walked back across the room, moving with a kind of lethal grace.

"What do you want to talk about?" he asked in heavily accented French.

"We want to talk about the current state of security in the area," Alberto said.

The man glided to the bed, whispered some words, and came back.


"We're journalists," I said.

When that bit of information was relayed to the colonel, he pulled the sheet up over his head and turned to the wall.

"He doesn't want to talk to any journalists," the Tuareg said.

"We're not really journalists," Alberto said.

"He won't talk to you," the man replied, and even through his bad French, it sounded like a threat.

Out of Bounds

And so we drove to Aguelhok, where we hired Muhammad, who claimed to have been an intermediary between the government and the rebels during the late war and who now said he could no longer provide security.

Alberto called us all together in the courtyard, and we stood around in the dark, shifting from foot to foot because there were decisions to be made. Alberto's clients, the Italians, were all prosperous men who'd spent dozens of vacations together traveling in the Sahara. Now they wanted to go somewhere no one else had been, someplace unique, and Alberto, a guide with a reputation for getting things done in West Africa, had suggested the salt mines. This is the nature of adventure travel at the turn of the century. Truly exotic journeys, singular and privileged, like the one the Italians had contracted for, are easily arranged. A person standing in any airport on earth is no more than 48 hours from Timbuktu (given the proper connections and no desire to sleep). There, in that dusty desert town, travelers congregate at the post office. Send a card to your Aunt May, postmarked Timbuktu.

These days tourists are enthusiastically welcomed to the fabled city, which was once forbidden to the world outside Africa. Those with the perverse desire to visit currently forbidden sites, people like my Italian friends, must endure various uncertainties regarding their own personal safety.

The salt mines were just such a place. "For one thousand years," Alberto had told his Italian clients, "no one from the outside could go to the salt mines. They were forbidden. You don't tell people where your gold mine is located."

The blocks begin the 500
treacherous miles to market

In the seventies, Alberto, like many adventurous young Europeans, had made a living of sorts shipping cars from Europe across the Mediterranean to Africa and then driving them 2,000 miles south through the Sahara and selling them in Mali or Nigeria or Togo or Burkina Faso. At the time, the salt mines were still operating up at Taoudenni, or so he had heard. No one he knew had ever been there. After independence from the French in 1960, the Malian government had used the mines as a political prison. Dissidents, generally from Bamako, were sent to the desert, where they were ill prepared to survive. To be condemned to work in the salt mines was tantamount to a death sentence.

Alberto became obsessed with the Taoudenni salt mine prison during his car-running days. As a political prison it was, of course, off-limits to foreigners. Forbidden. The only outsider Alberto ever talked to who had even gotten close to the prison was an International Red Cross worker who'd driven up from Timbuktu to check on the welfare of the prisoners. A guard stopped the man at gunpoint. The relief worker, staring into the business end of the rifle, explained the concept of international law and reminded the soldier of the strict neutrality of the Red Cross, called the Red Crescent in Muslim Africa. It was his duty to see that political prisoners were treated humanely, in accordance with international law.

The caravans were loose confederations of traders who didn't band together for defense. Raiders simply took what they wanted from the weakest. These were bloody affairs.

"Imbecile," the guard said, "there is no law here."

Alberto hatched an ill-conceived plan to dress as an Arab and try to see the mines. Good sense finally got the better of him.

In 1991, the prison was shut down. Mali, once aligned with the Soviet Union, was now moving toward a multiparty democracy. The elimination of human-rights abuses, such as forced labor in the salt mines, was a first step in securing international aid money. In 1996, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department declared Mali's human-rights record for that year "a bright spot on the African continent."

But, Alberto had heard, there were still people working in the mines, on their own, for money, and since there was a thin red lie on the map but no real roads from the mines at Taoudenni to Timbuktu, Alberto figured there still had to be camel caravans, carrying salt across the flowing dunes.

Seeing this medieval anachronism — the Caravan of White Gold-well, Alberto thought and the Italians agreed, it could be the experience of a lifetime. You just didn't want it to be the last experience of a lifetime. And so Alberto gave us a choice: We could go back down south of the Niger River and see, oh, the Dogon cliff dwellings, a nice, culturally captivating trip with no security problems at all — a trip, in fact, that Alberto guided frequently for the company Mountain Travel-Sobek. Mali south of the Niger was very safe.

Gigi and Dario wanted to wait a bit. See what happened. The two other Italians were both named Roberto. The Roberto everybody called Pepino had the heavy, ponderous dignity of a Roman emperor, and he was leaning toward retreat, as was the other Roberto, a man who reminded me of Clint Eastwood.

We decided not to decide.

Security Bandits

The next day was eid-al-fitr, a feast day marking the end of Ramadan. The streets of Aguelhok were thronged with people wearing resplendent new robes, all of them moving toward the mosque, where prayers were said outdoors. There were, I noticed, no cars other than our own in town.

After prayers, several families invited me into their homes, where I was invariably served tea, brewed on a charcoal brazier outside the front door. Tuareg tea is heated with an enormous amount of sugar until it boils up out of the pot and then served in a shot glass, which is always re-filled twice. The first glass is said to be "strong like a man," the second "mild like a woman," and the third "sweet like love." The convention seemed to be that one shouted "hi-eee" several times during the ingestion of the tea.

So there were people shouting "hi-eee" and drinking tea, while four teenage girls, using a pair of washtubs for drums, sang a series of hauntingly melancholy songs. Two polite boys, about eight years old, had befriended me and were teaching me to say something in Arabic that they obviously considered to be just a bit naughty. Something, I imagined, in the nature of "Hello, my name is Mr. Poopy Pants."

I figured it out by the time they got to the proper name. "Lahidahi ilalahi Muhammad..."

I was laughing along with the boys and saying the naughty words-"There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet"-when a shadow passed over. I looked up. A man in an iridescent green robe stood above me. He wore a black chêche and gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses. It was Colonel Yat's man, the human sword. He turned and walked swiftly away.

I followed at a cautious distance but lost him in the crowd. Two blocks away, parked by a curb, I found the bullet-scarred white Toyota we'd seen at Yat's house. It was the only other car in town, and now we knew who the bandits were. And why Muhammad, the security consultant, had turned down a year's wages for two weeks of work.

Alberto, who'd independently discovered the identity of the bandits, formulated a simple plan, modeled in part on the Malian solution to the Tuareg rebellion. We'd hire the bandits themselves to provide security.

Intarka, a Tuareg desert guide we'd hired on our first trip through Aguelhok, arranged a meeting, and we squatted in the courtyard with Colonel Yat's man and his two shadowy companions. The bandits wore their chêches in mask mode. The human sword was named Mossa ag Ala (Mossa, son of Ala). His two buddies were both named Baye. ("This is my brother Larry and this is my other brother Larry," I thought). And yes, for the right amount of money, they could get us to the salt mines and then safely down to Timbuktu.

A bedouin makes
herself at home

Negotiations began in earnest. The would-be security bandits bargained fiercely but finally agreed upon a price. We walked to an administrative center and typed out what I thought was a fairly impressive-looking contract. Mossa scrawled his name, pulled his chêche down over his mouth, and actually smiled.

And then, our security problems presumably solved, we were off to the salt mines, about 500 miles to the north and west. Intarka navigated while Mossa, Baye, and Baye led the caravan in the white Toyota, which was essentially a rolling bomb. The bandits chain-smoked, all three of them in the front seat, while two leaky 55-gallon drums full of gasoline banged around in the back of the car.

The Tuaregs decided to run overland, off the tracks in the sand that were the trans-Saharan highway. They wanted to avoid traffic, because traffic meant cars and cars meant bandits. Once, when we crossed some fresh tracks, the bandit car sped ahead and pulled to a stop just below a rise. Mossa lay on his belly in the sand, glassing the plain ahead. There was a car in the distance, but no — focus, focus — it was simply a rock, glittering in the sun.

I wore a blue chêche to filter sand out of the air I was breathing. There are many ways to wrap a chêche, but I preferred the romantic Tuareg bandit look, which left a three-foot-long tail of fabric hanging from the left shoulder. Stand in the desert wind, and the thing blew out behind you, Lawrence of Arabia style.

At one point, a herd of Dorcas gazelles bolted past our car. They were sand-colored animals about the size of elongated Brittany spaniels, sporting rabbity ears and a pair of inward curving horns about two feet long. The gazelles ran at speeds of over 40 miles an hour, making comical straddle-legged leaps every few seconds.

Here's a fashion hint concerning chêches and wildlife photography: Suppose you pull to a stop when a herd of gazelles goes leaping by, jump out of the car with your camera, and slam the door behind you. If you are wearing your chêche in the fashionable Tuareg bandit mode, the tail will catch in the door and abruptly pull you to your rear as you attempt to move forward.

A chêche pratfall is a source of great amusement to Tuaregs and Italians, to people from Togo like Daniel, the cook, and Amen, the mechanic (the one indispensable man in our party). An event of this nature will even draw an outright laugh from someone like Omar, the sulky Malian driver, who generally never smiled. Slapstick is universal. Brotherhood through comedy.

We sped over a flat desert plain where pebbly rocks were imbedded in hard sand, and our tires left tracks only half an inch deep. The Sahara provides two environments: reg, which is coarse flat sand, like the pea gravel we were driving through, and erg, shifting dune sand, which we expected to hit near the mines.

Just before dusk, Intarka had us pull into a large basin behind a low, rocky butte that would hide our campfires. The bandit car had veered off into the distance and was running inexplicable patterns across the sand — wide, curving turns, abrupt stops, sharp 90-degree corners. The bandits rolled into camp after dark with a gazelle they'd run to exhaustion, a method of hunting that didn't entirely appeal to my ideas about sportsmanship. Still, they ate the whole animal, which they grilled over a brush fire, and they gave the rabbity, horned head to Daniel, who felt he could use it in some fetish ceremony.

I asked Intarka, who had worked for the army during the rebellion, if he thought Mossa and his pals had really been planning to rob us. He shrugged. Would they have killed us, or merely taken the cars? Intarka said it didn't matter. "They're with us now," he said, "and their word is good."

Over by the Tuareg fire, Mossa threw down a shot glass of tea and shouted, "Hi-eee!"

The Salt Mines

Two more days of driving, while reg turned to erg. The dunes sloped gently upward where they faced the wind, then dropped off sharply on the other side. Omar couldn't seem to get the hang of driving the dunes. He'd race up the shallow slope, hit the crest of the dune, see what amounted to a cliff face dropping away below, and slam on the brakes, burying the front end of the truck two feet deep. Then it was sand-ladder time.

We dug out the wheels with shovels and hands and placed two three-foot-long tire-width metal rails in the sand underneath. Everyone pushed. Sometimes the car got going again and we ran after it, carrying the sand ladders, hoping there was some solid sand in the near distance. Often we had to dig out a second time, and a third, and a fourth. We were motoring through the Sahara three feet at a crack.

As we worked, a strong wind out of the northeast drove scouring sand before it. The seasonal harmattan winds carry sand from the Sahara all the way across the Atlantic and dump it on various Caribbean islands. A good blow seems to start low: It comes toward you pushing snakes of sand along the belly of the dune. Look around, and the world under your feet is alive with twisting, streaming sand snakes.

And then, half obscured by the ankle-deep sand snakes, I spied a series of tracks that looked like they had been made by three motorcycles running abreast. A closer look proved that these were camel tracks.

We saw them coming toward us: 60 camels walking single file, in three pack-strings of 20 apiece. Each of the camels carried four blocks of pure white salt. The blocks were rectangular, about two inches thick, two feet high and three feet wide. They weighed about 80 pounds apiece. Four young Tuaregs walked along with the caravan.

In exchange for cadeaux of tea and sugar, the Tuaregs explained the economics of the Caravan of White Gold. Salt cost about $4 a block at the mine. If you were lucky, that same block might sell for $30 in Timbuktu. This 60-camel caravan carried about ten tons of salt and might fetch a price of $6,200.

From Timbuktu, the salt would be ferried up the Niger to the town of Mopti, where there was a paved road system that could get it out to the whole of West Africa. Taoudenni salt was more expensive than the more plentiful sea salt, but West Africans — truly spectacular cooks who combine French technique with African ingredients and creativity — believe it is the best tasting and are willing to pay premium prices.

Alberto and I talked about the realities of the salt trade. Camel caravans still existed, as they had in the Middle Ages, because they were the only economically feasible means of transporting salt from the mines to the Niger. "You could rent a Land Cruiser," Alberto explained. "Say your brother-in-law owns the rental company. You get it for $50 a day, instead of the $100 I pay. Three days at least to drive to the mines from Timbuktu. One day to buy and load. Three days back. Seven days at a rental cost of $350, plus $150 for gas. That's $500, not counting what you pay for a driver, food, oil, and maintenance. A Land Cruiser carries a ton. At your best price, you'd make $650, which wouldn't even cover expenses."

"What about a ten-ton truck?" I wondered.

"Wouldn't make it through the sand."

We were now, we calculated, only miles from the mines. The next morning we rose up over a sandy hillside, crested a dune, and found ourselves staring down into a great yellow-orange basin, an enormous flatland that melted almost imperceptibly into the curve of the earth. Scattered about the sand plain at odd intervals were a number of loony, artificial-looking landmarks: a pink sand-scoured cone, a kind of lopsided pyramid, and toward the center of the plain, a butte that looked like a many-footed sphinx. There were humans and hundreds of camels — tiny toy figures — moving about under the gaze of the sphinx. A vast area of sand and clay was cratered with small excavations, as if the place had suffered some terrible saturation-bombing raid.

A three-mile drive took us a thousand years back into history, to the periphery of the fabled Taoudenni salt mines. Men — there were no women — cautiously approached the cars. There was no electricity, no town, no road, only the desert all about and these men laboring in the sand and clay. A dozen or more of the men accompanied me as I strolled through the mines. They asked for and accepted cadeaux of aspirin and antibiotics, all the while pointing out the sights, such as they were.

The excavations were all of a size: rectangular holes about 10 by 20 feet and perhaps 15 feet deep. They'd been dug by hand, and the dirt was piled high around the craters.

The basin surrounding the many-footed sphinx, I imagined, had once been completely underwater: a vast inland lake, something like the Great Salt Lake in Utah. As the climate changed and the water evaporated away, minerals were deposited in the old lake bed. Centuries of blowing sand buried the salt about ten feet deep.

The good, glittering white salt was concentrated in a layer about three feet thick. It was covered over in a layer of dirty brown salt that some workers had chopped out in blocks to make small shelters. The men who dug in the pits were mostly blacks, and they used handmade axes and picks to dig out the salt, to file away the inferior brown mineral, and to smooth the edges of the blocks so they could be loaded on the camels, which knelt obediently in the sand and were loaded right at the pits. The camel drivers were Tuaregs or Arabs. Ringing the mines were 16 different caravans of 60 to 70 camels apiece, at least a thousand animals. In the distance, I counted five more pack strings, three of which were loaded and on their way out.

At sunset, Mossa, in his capacity as security bandit, made a point of gathering everyone up and getting us all out of the mines before dark. We would camp a good distance away from the work crews, far to the northeast, on the edge of an abandoned part of the mine where old excavations were gradually filling with sand. In the morning, we'd walk through the mines one more time and leave early in the afternoon for Timbuktu, so the Italians could catch their flight. Families would be expecting them, Dario told me, and family came first.

By the next morning, the harmattan had kicked into high gear. The goofy landmarks — the cone and pyramid — began to shimmer and fade in the distance. Wind-driven sand snakes raced across the desert floor.

I pulled the neck portion of my chêche up over my face. Visibility was down to 200 yards, and I wandered off into the desert to relieve myself in the privacy-veil provided by blowing sand. I walked several hundred yards, then looked back. I couldn't see the camp and assumed they couldn't see me. The wind was on my left shoulder. I did my business and went back, navigating by the simple expedient of putting the wind on my right shoulder.

At camp, Amen had some bad news. Gigi was missing. Clint Eastwood-looking Roberto was sitting on the ground, beside the Land Rover, and he was literally wringing his hands in an agony of guilt. He'd been walking with Gigi. Gigi had dithered. Roberto had left him somewhere in the mines. Now he was gone.

We put together a search party and, with Dario in the lead, retraced the steps Gigi had taken. Alberto, meanwhile, had hired men on camels to ride in a widening spiral around the mines, looking for a man on foot.

Dario, athletic and decisive, ran ahead, scaling the highest of the excavations, where he'd be more likely to see Gigi, especially if he was lying injured in one of the old pits. Clint Eastwood-looking Roberto trudged through the sand in a hopeless fashion. He was known in Italy as a great hunter, but all his skills were useless to him here. The sandstorm had swept the desert floor clear of tracks. To me, the mines seemed a hopeless labyrinth. Including the abandoned sections, I estimated about five square miles of closely spaced pits, more than a thousand of them.

We straggled back into camp well after dark.

There'd been no sign of Gigi.

Strangers in the Night

After dark, Intarka stood on the roof of the Land Rover with a handheld spotlight and spun the beam through a slow 360-degree circuit. He did this tirelessly and for hours. Perhaps Gigi would see the light and follow it to the source.

Alberto drove around the mines to a small collection of salt-block houses directly opposite our camp. It was the only thing that resembled a settlement that we'd seen. Someone, we all felt, must have kidnapped Gigi. Alberto's plan was to offer money, diplomatically, for the return of our friend.

There were no police in the settlement, no soldiers, no secular authorities at all. The men of the mines, however, had submitted themselves to the moral authority of the Maraboot, a minor Muslim cleric who knew the Koran and who settled various disputes. Alberto met him in a salt-block courtyard illuminated by lanterns.

The Maraboot looked the part: an ascetic man of about 50 with an untrimmed beard going to white. He wore a brown robe and a black chêche, and he carried his authority with a degree of nobility. He told Alberto that he knew the kind of men who lived in the mines and that none of them was a killer or a robber or a kidnapper. He felt Gigi was somewhere safe, perhaps staying with people until the morning. The Maraboot offered a prayer for Gigi and said, "I think you will find your friend in one day and that he will not be injured."

Alberto arrived back in our camp and said that he'd been impressed with the Maraboot. Still, he'd organized and paid in advance for a 50-man search party to leave at dawn. In the distance, toward the mines, we could see lights moving in our direction. They were flashlights, held by people who wanted us to know they were coming to talk and were not sneaking up on us for an ambush. There were dozens of men. We interviewed them one by one.

An Arab with a broken foot said he'd seen one of the white men walk out into the desert about noon, just when the sandstorm was at its worst.

"What did he look like," Alberto asked.

"Blue chêche. He was the big one."

"Alberto," I said, "this guy's a moron. I'm standing right in front of him wearing a blue chêche. I'm the big one."

"Did you walk out into the desert?"

"To take a crap."

And so it went, for hours.

Clint Eastwood-looking Roberto sat in one of the cars, chain-smoking cigarettes. He blamed himself, and his eyes were red-rimmed from crying. Pepino-Roberto sat with him, assuring the grief-stricken man that Gigi's disappearance wasn't his fault. Things would work out.

At about 2 a.m. a tall Arab mounted elegantly on a sleek camel rode into camp along with four or five men on foot who seemed to be his retinue. The man wore a fine green robe and had the air of a dignitary. "Your friend," he said, "is staying with some people." He, the Arab, knew these people. He could buy Gigi back for us. It would cost 500,000 African francs, about $1,000.

Dario said, "You see, the Arab people do their business at night." It was less an expression of prejudice than one of hope. Dario had agreed with me earlier in the evening; he, too, thought Gigi was dead. Now, for $1,000, that sorrow could be instantly lifted from his soul.

Alberto bargained with the Arab. He would give only 50,000 francs up front, the rest to be paid when we saw Gigi alive and well. The Arab dismounted, spat on the ground, and stood too close to Alberto. "500,000 now," he said. "Then maybe you will see your friend."

Alberto turned and nodded to the white Land Cruiser behind him, where Mossa, Baye, and Baye were smoking cigarettes and monitoring the conversation. Mossa snapped on his headlights, and the tall Arab stood there blinking in the sudden glare. All three Tuaregs stepped out of the car, their black chêches worn up, in mask mode. The tall Arab, half blinded and confused, now looked as if all his internal organs had suddenly collapsed. I have seldom seen such outright fear on a man's face.

Mossa shouted three harsh words, and the tall Arab, along with his entourage, disappeared rapidly into the night.

No one slept. People kept wandering into camp with another tidbit of information. About four in the morning, a young Arab appeared and said that earlier in the evening he'd seen a white man walking toward the well at Taoudenni. This didn't seem right. The well was ten miles away and almost 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Gigi knew how to get around outdoors. Plus, Alberto had already been to the well, and none of the men there had seen Gigi.

Still, the young Arab seemed guileless. He was about 18 and knew nothing about our offer of a reward to anyone who found Gigi alive. The Arab said he had seen an older man walking alone and a spotlight beaming in the distance.

Now a white man walking in the desert at night was an extremely odd circumstance. So was the light. The young Arab had put the two together instantly: The light was for the white man. He had tried to tell him that, but the man just kept walking, staring at the ground and smiling vaguely. He had touched the man's arm and tried to turn him so he could see the light. But the man would not turn. He only made this strange gesture: The Arab dropped his hands to his sides.

"Wait a minute," I said, nearly shouting. "Do that again. Do it the way he did it."

The Arab turned his hands and moved them lightly up and down, as if patting two small children on the head. It was Gigi's futility gesture.

Goddamn! Gigi, still alive, somewhere near the Taoudenni well.

Gigi in the Tormentosa de Sable

Alberto, pepino-roberto, chris, Mossa, and I sped overland in the eerie silver light of false dawn. We skidded to a stop at the well. There was a ruined French fort, an abandoned prison, and a defunct armored personnel carrier parked nearby. The sun was just rising, an enormous sphere balanced on the horizon, and its light, in the lingering haze of the sandstorm, was the lurid red of flowing blood. When I looked back toward the prison, there was a man walking our way. He cast a shadow 30 feet long, and it rose high and red on the whitewashed walls of the prison.

"Gigi!" I screamed.

Mossa had already seen him and was running over the sand, with me sprinting behind and steadily losing ground. Mossa hit Gigi like a linebacker and nearly knocked him over with an embrace. The car sped by me. Alberto was hugging Gigi when I got there, so Mossa hugged me. His eyes were tearing over. He wasn't crying — I couldn't imagine Mossa ever crying — but he was overcome with emotion. Pepino, walking in his heavy, dignified way, was sobbing openly, drying his eyes with a clean white handkerchief.

We offered Gigi some water, and he took a small sip, as if to be polite. He'd been lost in the Sahara, without a canteen, for 22 hours. He drank two more sips, then patted some children on the head to indicate that, no, no, he didn't want any more.

Back at our camp, Alberto paid the Arab the promised reward. Dario and Clint Eastwood-looking Roberto were taking turns embracing Gigi. Their gestures were elegantly expressive, fully Italian. Roberto, weeping, hugged Gigi, patted him on the back, and then pushed him out to arm's length and cocked a fist as if to punch him in the mouth.

Gigi was smiling his vague smile, staring at the ground, and every time Roberto gave him a little room, he began weighing a couple of melons in explanation.

After this orgy of emotion, while everyone else was packing up for what now had to be a doubly high-speed run over the dunes to Timbuktu, Gigi and I spoke for a couple of hours. I wanted to know what happened. We spoke in Spanish, our only common language.

Gigi told me:

He'd been walking, taking pictures, dithering around as usual, when the sandstorm hit. He'd marked his position by the various oddly shaped formations on the horizon — the many-footed sphinx, the pyramid, and the cone — and felt he would be able to tell where he was at any time by using the process of triangulation. Did I understand about triangulation? Gigi began weighing some melons in his hands. "Por example," he said, "if I move from here to the west, the cone would change its position on the horizon..."

"Si, si, entiendo," I said, a bit impatiently. I understood about triangulation.

Well, in a sandstorm, Gigi explained reasonably, a "tormentosa de sable," a man cannot see the mountains on the horizon and therefore cannot use the process of triangulation in order to fix his position. He'd been concentrating on his photos, because in the sand there were bits of clay that he was interested in and...

"So," I said, hurrying the story along, "when you looked up from your photo..."

The sand, Gigi said, was blowing and he couldn't see, so he just began walking but he must have gotten turned around taking the photos, and he walked the wrong way. He was walking almost directly into the wind, to the northeast, the direction of the harmattan, and he should have known that was wrong, but he was thinking about other things.

I almost asked what he was thinking about but quelled the impulse. At this point we'd been working on the story for an hour.

It was actually painful, walking into the blowing sand, so Gigi sat down for an hour or two, with his back to the wind. By late that afternoon, the storm had blown itself out, but the distant mountains, his triangulation points, were still obscured in the harmattan haze. Gigi walked in a large circle, hoping to see the rubble and excavation of the salt mines. But it was just a level plain of sand. He sat down to think again, admired the sunset, and then got up, picked a direction at random, and began walking.

It was dark when a young man came up to him and began speaking in a language Gigi took to be Arabic. Gigi tried to project the image of an Italian gentleman out on an evening stroll, preoccupied with his own thoughts and unwilling to be bothered. The young man grabbed his arm as if he wanted him to turn and go the other way. Gigi had some preconceived notions about Arabs in the dark and so he refused to turn and see the light. In the day, Gigi said, it might have been different. He continued walking, smiling at the ground and making his it-is-useless gesture of patting children on the head. The Arab shrugged and left him. Gigi felt he'd handled the encounter well.

He walked for several more hours until he saw the lights of some campfires reflecting off a whitewashed building in the distance. As he got closer, he could see figures moving around the fires, then he could hear the shouts and laughter of people conversing in Arabic. They seemed to be camped around a well.

In the building nearest him, and farthest from the fires and the people, there were several very small rooms with bars on the windows. It was, Gigi assumed, the old prison. He chose a cell and lay down. The brick building held the heat of the day and it was all quite pleasant. The sky had now cleared, and Gigi could see the stars.

He lay on his back and formulated a plan. His friends had to get to Timbuktu to catch a flight to Bamako and then to Italy, where their families would be waiting. He expected that we would be searching for him, but he hoped we'd leave by noon, so as not to miss the flight. He didn't want to have a lot of families worried on his account.

And if we did leave, Gigi would simply walk over to the Arabs by the well, introduce himself, and ask if he could tag along on the 500-mile trip back to Timbuktu. He'd be home in a couple of months.

Satisfied with his plan, Gigi fell into a sleep so profound that he didn't hear the Land Rover pull into the prison compound at 11 that night. He didn't hear Alberto and Chris and Pepino conversing with the Arabs. He'd hid himself well, and none of the men had seen him.

He woke refreshed just before dawn. As soon as the sun came up, he walked out of the prison, on his way down to the well, to make friends with the Arabs. That's when he saw me and Mossa and Pepino. All these people sprinting over the desert in his direction, crying and shouting. It was strange.

The Maraboot's Cadeau

We'd lost a day looking for gigi, but there was a chance the Italians could still make their flight out of Timbuktu. However, there were thank-yous to be offered, and that would delay us. Alberto stopped at the Maraboot's salt-block house and called off the morning's search. The men he'd hired could keep the money that had been given them. Most of them had searched for Gigi yesterday afternoon anyway, without compensation. We were very grateful.

Alberto thanked the Maraboot for his prayers and asked if there was anything he could do: Would the Maraboot accept a cadeau? He would not. The cleric was just happy that everything had turned out well and that our friend was safe. The Maraboot's refusal made him all the more impressive in our eyes. We'd been bombarded by cries for cadeaux for weeks.

But no, after a moment's reflection, the Maraboot said there was something we could do. There were two Arab men who had been stranded at the mines and were unaffiliated with any caravan. Could we take them back to their homes about 200 miles north of Timbuktu?

Yes, of course.

Both the Arabs were thin, desiccated-looking men, with strong, coppery planes in their faces and high arched noses. They looked like Moorish versions of Don Quixote, as drawn by El Greco. The man who rode with me in the Land Rover was named Nazim, and he carried a 20-pound bag of dates. If his good luck evaporated and he had to walk, the dates would sustain him for the 300-mile trek.

Nazim had never ridden in a car before. He had to be shown how to work the door latch and the handle that rolled down the window. In 30 seconds, he had pretty much mastered the technological intricacies involved in being an automobile passenger.

The Arabs navigated. They rapidly figured out what sort of terrain was best for the vehicles and chose areas where the wind had packed sand tight to the ribs of the dunes. We flew over a roller coaster of smooth sand at 40 miles an hour. Every few hours we converged on the main camel track leading toward the mines. I counted 12 caravans heading in to the mines and 11 going out, about 1,600 camels in all.

It was near noon, and Nazim was getting nervous, looking around and fidgeting.

"Prayers," I shouted over the rattle of the diesel engine.

Alberto stopped the car, and Nazim, an old hand with door latches by now, jumped out and knelt in the sand, facing east. While the Tuaregs and Arabs prayed together, I scanned the line of dunes ahead, which rose and crested like so many ocean waves about to break. Bright, flashing lights seemed to be moving over the summit of the highest of the dunes, a dozen or more miles away. Although I couldn't see the camels, I guessed it had to be another caravan, fully loaded, the salt blocks glinting in the sun like a long line of signal mirrors.

We drove until well after dark and then set up camp at the base of a high dune that had the rolling sensuality of a line-drawn nude. The sand was cool and seemed luxurious. The constellations spun above, almost impossibly bright, and for a moment the Sahara seemed the most romantic spot on earth.

Many women, I knew, especially French women, travel to the desert hoping to kindle a romance with a proud desert chieftain, with someone, I imagined, exactly like Mossa. Ah, the handsome features, the noble warrior's heart, the strong, slender hands stroking under cotton robes with the hard stars burning overhead...

"I heard two American women talking about their affairs with Tuaregs," Alberto told me. "I was driving a tour. They didn't know I spoke English."

"What did they say?"

It was pretty much as I had thought. They women agreed the Tuareg men were physically beautiful, and they took these women, there in the sand, as if by right. They took them brashly and with a breath of contempt, which made it that much more exciting.

Just one thing about all that ravishing, Alberto added.


"They said it was quick."

Alberto pronounced the word "queek."

"Queek," I repeated, secretly pleased.

"Yes, both of them agreed. Queek, queek, it is all over."

We exchanged a glance, Alberto and I. The glance said, "Maybe we are not the most desirable specimens of masculinity in this desert, but — in contrast to every offensively handsome Tuareg male alive — we would, given the opportunity, conduct this ravishment-under-the-stars business with a good deal less efficiency."

Such delusions are the salve of wounded pride.

Revenge of the Gazelles

Gradually, grudgingly, the sand began to give way to a sparsely vegetated plain that, after miles of erg, seemed incredibly lush. There were a few camels feeding on acacia trees, and then, as we slowed to negotiate a path through a large herd of goats, Nazim pointed to a pair of blue-and-beige open-fronted tents. He said, "Ah, ah, ah."

We stopped. A woman huddled in the nearest tent, protectively pushing a pair of youngsters behind her. Cars never came this way. Her expression seemed to say, "Nothing good can come of this." Nazim stepped out of the Land Rover and carefully closed the door behind him, as if to demonstrate new skills. The woman stared at Nazim in a kind of awed astonishment. She rose slowly to her feet, stupefied, then ran to him and hugged him tightly while the two small children pulled at the folds of his tunic.

So we delivered the Maraboot's cadeau, and thank you, Nazim, but no time for tea. It was still ten hours to Timbuktu, and 16 hours until the Italians' flight.

We ran hard. Omar, the surly Malian driver, blew a shock absorber, there was a flat tire or two on the other vehicles, and our security bandits' gasoline drums were running low, which didn't actually stop them from chasing gazelles.

We were slaloming up and down a series of sloping dunes in the dark, about 50 miles north of Timbuktu, when the bandits finally and irrevocably ran out of gas. Mossa, Baye, and Baye got out and surrounded their vehicle. They stood with their arms crossed over their chests, staring hard at the Toyota as if it owed them some sort of an explanation.

It was a tableau I'd entitle "The Revenge of the Gazelles."

Alberto took a GPS reading while Mossa, Baye, and Baye discussed their options. It was decided that Baye and Baye would stay with the car while Mossa would come with us, continuing to provide high-class security all the way to Timbuktu, as agreed. There he'd arrange for another car and would be back to pick up Baye and Baye by and by.

The two men gave everyone a hug in the abrupt bone-crushing manner of the desert. And then we were off again.

"Bye-bye, Baye Baye," everyone shouted from the windows. I imagine we sounded like a pack of dogs all suffering from the same strange speech impediment. "Bye-bye, Baye and Baye."

"Hi-eee, Hi-eee," shouted Baye and Baye.

The vehicles slipped and slid across the shifting sand. They got bogged down. They got pushed out on sand ladders. They slowed near the top of most every dune, engines roaring, slowing, slowing, stopping. We had to back down every third slope and try again. And then, at the summit of a dune that had taken us four tries to climb, I saw our destination only ten miles away. It was spread out below us in all its glittering magnificence, such as it was (I counted 27 lights): the historic and formerly forbidden city of Timbuktu, where there was a reasonably comfortable hotel, cold beer for sale, a post office, and a jetport that was 48 hours from any major airport on earth. Some of which, I thought, were not entirely secure.

G E T T I N G     T H E R E
Tim Cahill went on a combination of trips offered by Mountain Travel-Sobek and Lost Frontiers. The Mountain Travel-Sobek portion of the trip was their Timbuktu and Beyond program, as well as their Azalai Salt Caravan extension trip. For information about these trips call 888-687-6235 or look up their website at

The portion of Cahill's trip that went all the way to the salt mines was arranged by Lost Frontiers. For information on that trip, call Lost Frontiers at 415-455-0942 or e-mail them at [email protected]

Photographs by Chris Rainier

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