Book review: Men of Salt ~ Michael Benanav

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MEN OF SALT – Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold
Michael Benanav ~ The Lyons Press, 2006

There are few camel trading routes in the world. One of them is in Mali, and it stretches about 750km north from Timbuktu as far as salt mines of Taoudenni. A few western travellers have made the journey in the company of the salt caravans. Michael Benanav’s book is a wonderful account of such a journey made in late 2003.

While there seems to be little shortage of slightly crazed travellers making their way to some extraordinary places, on this earth, it does not necessarily mean that the book produced is worth reading. Michael Benanav is a journalist with a flair for the descriptive, and for ensuring that his book holds the reader’s interest from beginning to end. He successfully blends some of the history of the route and the salt trade, some of his thoughts on the philosophy of travel, and provides an account of the trials, frustrations, enjoyment and the wonder of taking such a journey. He meets and travels with many people on the way – his guide, another traveller, the men who operate the caravan, the people of Arouane, the miners of Taoudenni itself and the nomadic people of the desert.

Michael Benanav makes a conscious effort to travel with the camelliers and his guide, without any concessions to his western background, in the form of GPS, satellite telephone or special food. He takes the risks to get as close as possible to the genuine experience of travelling in the same way people have for hundreds of years. The difficulties of such travel, and the rewards of doing so are reflected in his account.

The author writes -“Despite all I had seen thus far, and all I had imagined, I was unprepared for the untempered desolation of Taoudenni. It is situated on utterly lifeless desert flats; not a single leaf, or even thorn, grows from the parched, crusty dirt, which was so sharp it bit into the soles of my bare feet.”

Having travelled that way myself by camel, I can attest to the accuracy of the descriptions provided in his book of the scenery and people, which are true and evocative, without any hint of exaggeration. Whilst the description of the scenery is wonderful, it is really the interest Michael Benanav expresses in the people of this landscape that make the book such a strong account of his journey.

Benanav observes “I’d been deeply affected by my contact with the miners, not only because of their kindness, but because they’d taken this potentially hellish place and made it, if not heaven, at least human …”

The reader is introduced to people whose way of life is so different from ours. People who rely exclusively on word-of-mouth for communication. People who dance and sing after a day’s hard work in a salt mine at the end of the earth. People for whom an arranged marriage is normal. People who can navigate unaided across what appears to be featureless harsh landscape for days, and arrive at their destination as planned. All are beautifully described in this book.

Sensibly the book includes a two maps to illustrate the route and while the photographs in the book are interesting (both the colour plates, and monochrome chapter heading images), and add value to the book, the strength of the book lies in the writing.

The book is an excellent account of the author’s journey, as well as being very enjoyable to read from beginning to end.

Alistair Bestow

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