By Camelback to Timbuktu
On sabbatical in Spring 2001, Associate Professor of Anthropology John
Barthelme attended the Pan-African Archaeological Conference in Mali
in February. With time to travel afterwards, he signed on to a working
camel caravan scheduled to haul salt slabs from Taoudenni, northern
Mali, south across 900 kilometers of Sahara desert and the Sahel ("Sahara"
is Arabic for "sand sea," "Sahel" Arabic for "sand
sea shore") to Timbuktu, near the Niger River in central Mali.
The journey took 21 days, during which Barthelme was able to conduct
some archaeological research, learned new ways of living in relation
to his environment, and, in his words, "gracefully discovered my
own mortality." The pictures and observations here are drawn from
his journal of his experiences. --NSB
( 1) In order to reach Taoudenni, Barthelme and several others drove
for four days in a four-wheel-drive truck across roadless desert. On
the first night, they stayed at the desert home of Dai, a salt merchant
who arranged for the caravan and Barthelme's participation in it. The
colorful ball in the foreground is cloths and blankets that serve multiple
purposes; one of Dai's two wives peeks over the tent to the left. It
was here that Barthelme first donned his robe and turban, beheld the
majesty of the stars on a silent desert night and had a bowl of camel's
milk. "I felt I could hold the constellations in my hands,"
(2) At Taoudenni, Barthelme, Dai (right), Dai's brother (left, a salt
mine overseer) and a salt miner boil water for tea. "We had three
cups of tea six or eight times a day," says Barthelme. "It
was bitter, green tea, and the first cup was sugarless, symbolizing
death, the second half sugar, symbolizing life, and the third almost
all sugar, symbolizing love." Barthelme was told that only half
a dozen wazzoons (white people) undertake a caravan ride annually.
(3) Under way: The caravan and several others stop at a well for water.
Although famous for their ability to go without water, according to
Barthelme camels make "a symphony of noises" in anticipation
of getting some--which they do by being persuaded to lower and then
raise donkey skin bags. After the first four days, the caravan frequently
traveled at night so as to avoid temperatures that reached 120 degrees
F--with no shade. "At times I was able to observe half-million-year-old
stone tools that the wind had uncovered," Barthelme recalls. He
also saw bleached camel bones and several human graves, medical care