The Berber Camel Caravans, Travelling to Timbuktu

Timbuktu is an evocative name. For over a millenium it has conjured travel, mystery and adventure, salt, gold and knowledge. It is a town located where the Niger River flows northward into the desert. Timbuktu was founded by the Tuareg Imashagan in the 11th century and thanks to its unique geographical position, it became a natural meeting point for Tuareg, Songhai, Wangara, Fulani and Arabs.  From the 11th century onwards, Timbuktu became an important port where goods from West Africa and North Africa were traded. Timbuktu is also the crossroads “where the camel meets the canoe,” a place of traders and middle-men. Timbuktuians say of their history: gold came from the south, salt from the north, and Divine Knowledge, from within.

Timbuktu became a settlement in the 12th century and by the 15th century it had become one of the most celebrated intellectual and commercial cities in Africa. The Berbers – saharan peoples from the north – who date back thousands of years, visited this trading hub with their caravans of camels. They transported slabs of salt from the mines of Taoudenni across the desert via the oasis of Araouane to Timbuktu. The caravans were also called Trans-Saharan caravans or Mineral Caravans because of the copper and salt carried. By camel the journey to Timbuktu takes around three weeks with each camel carrying either four or five slabs. Typically, for each four slabs transported to Timbuktu, the miners keep one and the other three are payment for the camel owners.

Naturally the camels always were and still are of fundamental value to the Berbers. They would be fattened up for months on the plains the Maghreb or the Sahel before going into a caravan, which could be of 1,000 camels although some numbered 12,000! The Berber guides knew the desert and could ensure safe passage from fellow nomads. Their desert skills are legendary. To navigate the 500-mile salt trade caravan route, they used time-honoured methods: star-gazing, wind patterns, sand dune formations and even the colour of the sand.

Experience the life of the Berbers from the north of Morocco through Mauritania to the Tuareg berbers of Mali on our Sahara Overland trip and connect with a way of being that runs millennia deep and profoundly resonates with us all today. We are all essentially fleeting nomads in time!