Salt Caravans of Niger


Going to Bilma to get salt

For centuries, camel caravans have carried salt along caravan routes across the Sahara Desert. One of these routes went from the salt springs in Bilma and westwards in Niger to the oasis towns of the Aïr Mountains and to Agadez. It is called the “Taghlamt”.

The trade routes through the Sahara linked countries around the Mediterranean Sea with countries south of the Sahara. On the trade routes through the Sahara, camel caravans began to be used around the year 300. The Camel caravans had their heyday between 1490 and 1590.

Ibn Batutta, the Arab explorer and geographer, said that the caravans often had more than 1000 camels and that sometimes there could be as many as 10000.

Caravans with thousands of camels loaded with salt and other goods crossed the Sahara and arrived in places like the fabled Timbuktu in Mali and Agadez in Niger. The caravans carried, among other things, salt, fruit, grain, and gold. Salt was a precious resource. It is said that once upon a time, a salt bar was worth about as much as a gold bar.

Camels are no longer in use along the main traditional trade routes today, but on two shorter routes from Agadez to Bilma and from Timbuktu to Taoudenni (called the "Azalaï"), camel caravans could be seen up until recent times. On both routes, however, camel caravans have almost entirely been replaced by trucks.

The route between Agadez and Bilma runs through a part of the Sahara called Ténéré (“Ténéré” comes from the Tuareg language Tamasheq and means "desert"). The Ténéré nature reserve has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1991.

The route passes through the oasis town of Fachi and the 600 km journey takes around 3 weeks. Two types of salt were extracted from the salt sources in the Sahara, salt for human consumption and salt for animal feed. The salt from Bilma is used for animals.

See also the image captions for some additional information.

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