FEATURE-Saharan salt caravans ply ancient route

TICHIT, Mauritania, Feb 21 (Reuters) - Caught between an encroaching sea of sand and a towering rocky plateau, Tichit has been a staging post for more than nine centuries for camel caravans snaking across the Sahara.

Isolated in the most inhospitable part of southeastern Mauritania, the crumbling buildings of the once-prosperous town are relentlessly buffeted by winds.

For nearly a millennium, nomadic traders have crossed this desert, braving sandstorms and searing temperatures, in search of "white gold" -- salt from Tichit's open-cast mine, or sebkha.

"We have walked for six days from Nema to get this salt," said camel driver Moussa Mohamed in stilted French, referring to a town 300 km (190 miles) across the desert to the southeast.

"My grandfather drove this camel train in the past before me," he said proudly, sitting in a huddle with his colleagues, drinking sweet mint tea.

The amersal, or earth salt, is formed when the blazing sun heats a dry lake bed after July's sudden rains, drawing liquid to the surface where it is baked into a thick layer of salt mixed with sand. This can be refined for human consumption or is more commonly fed to livestock for its rich mineral content.

It is sold in markets across Africa's arid Sahel belt from Djenne to Agadez, often finding its way to farms where cattle can be found under the shade of a tree licking a block of salt.

In Tichit, once the site of a famed Koranic school, the slow decline of the caravan trade has left people fighting to survive. Its decorative mosques stand empty and -- as in some other West African countries -- some mothers refuse to let their children be vaccinated. Disease is widespread.


"I cannot adapt to such a basic life," said Mamadou Sy, the town doctor, who trained in Tunisia.

Women and children toil in the sun's glare to break the salty crust, often using just a stone, before packing it into sacks or goatskin bags for the camel trains.

"If we want to earn any money, we have to collect this salt," said Aicha, a young girl. "Come and help us!"

Trans-Saharan caravans were the key means of trade between the Mediterranean and West Africa between the 8th and the 16th centuries, when new sea routes began slowly to overtake them.

In the days of Ghana's empire and the later Mali kingdom, the route traded Mediterranean salt for bountiful African gold. Tichit grew up in the 12th century around this trade.

Ibn Battuta, the 14th-century Arab explorer, said trans-Saharan caravans averaged more than 1,000 camels and could sometimes number as many as 12,000.

The wealth of the great trading city of Timbuktu in Mali became legendary in Europe and the Arab world. When its most famous king, Mansa Moussa, made the pilgrimage to Mecca in 1324 he handed out so much gold en route in Cairo that its price fell for a decade.


The single-humped dromedary, first domesticated about 3,000 years ago, remains the backbone of this dwindling trade.

Ingeniously adapted for desert life, the camel's stamina makes it the ideal beast of burden: it can go 10 days without drinking, often in temperatures of up to 50 degrees Celsius, and survive for a month on just two kg (4 lb) of grass.

Their humps store fatty tissue which provides energy and water and their nostrils can seal themselves against the sand. They have blood cells specially adapted to cope with extreme dehydration and strong kidneys that produce syrup-like urine.

The villagers of Tichit also prize camels for their leather and wool, and a milk more nourishing than cattle's. After a life of labour, an old animal will be taken to the village abattoir: camel's liver and hump are sought-after delicacies.

Throughout the year, except during the soaring temperatures of May, hundreds of camels arrive each day at Tichit. The caravan drivers lead their herds to the village well before tying them down in a kneeling position to keep them quiet.

With about 50 camels per train, loading the cargo of salt can take two days, against a cacophony of moaning from the animals and negotiations with the salt sellers. Each beast will bear four sacks of 50 kg (110 lb) each.

The caravan leaves Tichit headed toward Aioun el Atrous, some 200 km (125 miles) away, where the men hope to sell their cargo for 3,000 Ougiya ($11) per sack.

The camel drivers carry a goatskin full of water and a thick blanket. Their only meal could be a few morsels of bread or some dried dates.

The caravan advances slowly as the barefoot drivers jealously eye the salt sacks, careful to ensure none of the precious cargo is lost. A loose cord between the animals could also quickly lead to the train dispersing.

"All day from morning to night without stopping. But one never complains -- never," said one driver.