Bilma Salt Caravan

Sahara Overland camel contributor Alistair Bestow
gives an account of the Bilma salt caravan in Niger.

tenere-mapFor a few years now, on my office wall at work I have had a Jean-Luc Manaud calendar, with evocative images of Niger, particularly of the Tenere Desert. It is well out of date, and has been stuck on the image of Fachi for months. I had resolved to get there this winter, and to see both Bilma and Fachi, by camel if that was possible.

I arrived in Agadez on 30th December 2005, after having travelled from Niamey by bus, and hunted down one of the guides recommended by Lonely Planet. Moussa Touboulou was in town and available to be my guide, if we could work out an itinerary for such a trip at a reasonable price. I was told that it was only really possible to travel both to, and from, Bilma by camel caravan, if I arrived in Agadez in October. There is apparently an ‘October Rush’ being the most favourable time to go for the camels. Therefore it would be possible to go to Bilma by vehicle, and then wait for a caravan to leave Bilma for Agadez.

sahara-camel-trekkingWe nutted out a deal, whereby Moussa would organise the travel by truck to Dirkou (600+km), and then 4WD from Dirkou to Bilma (40km) and then by camel from Bilma back to Agadez. He would travel with me for the full distance, organise the permit -still required for travel in this area- food, water and accommodation, if needed in Dirkou and Bilma. His fee was CFA55000 per day (approx £55 per day). We worked out a daily rate, because the number of days to undertake the travel was not certain, and I have had experience in a guide wildly over-estimating the number of days for a journey, thereby making the daily cost quite expensive. It proved to be the case here too, -Moussa estimating 30 days, but in fact the trip took only 20 days in all.

There was a few days to wait in Agadez before a truck was going to leave for Dirkou, but one was located, and on Wednesday 4th Jan 2006, we went by taxi to the edge of town where indeed a large Mercedes truck was waiting. We climbed aboard on top of the goods, along with 30 or so others for the journey to Dirkou. It proved to be nearly two days travel, the truck being overloaded, and lumbering along quite slowly over the flat, flat desert. It was quite an experience to travel this way, being crushed in with everyone else, but was thankful that it was only 2 days, and that we were not as overloaded as some of the other trucks that we saw en-route.

We arrived in Dirkou, being a surprisingly large town, on the morning of Jan 6th. We stayed overnight at a ‘friends’ house, which left me time to explore the markets under the shady trees, and to marvel at the flat absolute desert to the west. Moussa organised a lift in a 4WD the next day for Bilma, and we arrived there on Jan 7th.

Bilma is everything I had imagined of an oasis, but being larger than I expected. There are shady sandy streets -large trees I think which may have been planted by the French, groves of date palms, watered gardens of fruit and vegetables, an aging, crumbling fort, and a Grand Source of water, being a large pool of water inhabited by small fish, and frequented by birds including a spoonbill. To the north west of the oasis, are the salt works, where pools of saline water are created to allow the salt to crystallise on the surface. The workers then disturb the crystals on the surface, sending them to the bottom from where they are collected and dried. These crystals are then broken up by a hammer, have water added to them, and than are placed in moulds of one shape or another. The moulds are either a basin or two sizes, or a cone, made from the truck of a palm tree and covered with leather. The salt is turned out, and then dried into the robust forms which are carried by caravan to Agadez and beyond.

I was in Bilma for 2 days, before the caravan Moussa had located and negotiated with, was due to leave. The day before our departure, I went to the salt works where the caravan was located, and watch the parcels of salt being made ready for transport. Generally two or three cones, were packed with several basin forms of salt, in damp palm matting, and tied up with rope. The large parcels were barely able to be lifted by a man. The salt is supported, when on the camel by goat skins filled with dates -also being sent to Agadez and beyond.

On Monday 9th Jan, we joined the caravan, and at 1.00pm said farewell to Bilma. It is noted that in contrast to the caravan travel I have done in Mali, to Timbuktu-Taoudenni, that this trip saw us rent some capacity from the caravan itself, rather than having our own camels. This meant that Moussa and I were ’embedded’ in the caravan. On the Timbuktu-Taoudenni trips it has been difficult sometimes to convince the guide to travel with the salt caravans, because it is easier and faster to travel with the guides own camels.

The desert here was quite different from that of Mali, the Tenere being much sandier, having less vegetation, and more dunes, but at the same time being less variable in its appearance, than the desert of Mali. It was four days of travel to reach Fachi,. There was plenty of time to admire the wonderful creamy dunes along the way, of which there are many. We travelled from 9 in the morning to about 10 at night non-stop. It was clearly well planned, as the caravan carried exactly the correct amount of feed for this sector, until they picked up another 4 days worth of feed that they had left in Fachi on the way to Bilma. After the eighth day, we reached the Arbre du Tenere monument, and there after there was sufficient feed to be found for the camels en-route for the last 7 days of travel to Agadez, making a total of 15 days by camel.

The last 6 days of travel was through stony desert, with frequent patches of vegetation for the camels to eat, and we passed a number of villages, and nomadic Tuareg with their sheep and goats. We also travelled for a few less hours per day than had been the case for the first 8 days.

The caravan actually was not going to finish its journey until Tahoua, some few hundred kilometers later. On the last night , I said my farewells to the camelliers whom I had got to know over the previous 2 weeks. They had made me feel very welcome, and it was a great journey.