By the 15th–16th centuries Timbuktu was flourishing as a center of commerce and scholarship. News of the city in the desert soon hit Europe, and rumors circulated of a capital paved in gold and jewels. Yet no Western explorer reached the remote and seemingly mythical place until 1826, when the Scottish explorer Gordon Laing became the first known Westerner to enter Timbuktu—only to be killed by Muslim tribesmen on his way out of town. Two years later, however, Frenchman René-Auguste Caillié made it in and out of Timbuktu alive, using the cultural knowledge he’d picked up while living for a year in what is now Mauritania to disguise himself as a Muslim (among other things, he learned how to speak Arabic and tie a turban). But according to Sory, Caillié’s accounts of the fabled city were called into question upon his return to Europe. “Caillié came back to France and told them of this crumbling city in the desert,” Sory said. “They thought he was lying. But by the 1800s, the city was in deep decline. The myths no longer held true. Caillié’s account was correct.”
Much of Timbuktu’s demise could be blamed on the sea-shipping routes that had become well established by the 19th century; additionally, other sources of salt had been found in Northern Ireland, Germany, and England, as well as on the Black Sea coast, making the dangerous trek into the desert no longer necessary on a large scale. Following the West’s discovery of Timbuktu, Mali’s salt road fell further into decline. As recently as 1960, the caravans transported some 15,000 tons of salt per year, but today the trade is only a third of this figure, as salt mines have continued to be developed in other, more accessible places throughout Europe and the Americas.
However, the old route is still in use, and life on the salt road remains dangerous (and it was so even before March’s coup). Though trucks or cars now make up the majority of the azalai, bandits remain a risk (my driver Mohammed said he had been robbed at gunpoint outside the desert outpost of Gao just three weeks before we met) and an even more timeless threat is the desert itself.
“There is only one road to Taoudenni,” Sory said (road being a generous word for the Taoudenni corridor). Unpaved and often unmarked, the desert crossing can still confuse the untrained eye. “In the early days, the traders would have to navigate by the sun and stars. Even now, you have to have knowledge of the sky, because if you veer off the road or get lost, you die.”
“It takes five days to go from Timbuktu to Taoudenni,” Sory continued. “Traders will go by caravan—at least 10 trucks at a time. There are no gas stations or hotels, so the drivers have to take everything with them. They drive up with supplies for Taoudenni salt-mine workers and the village, and drive back laden down with salt. If you go by camel—which people still do—it takes 28 days.”
Back on the road out of Dogon country, we find a small market and I bargain for some salt—a souvenir of my trip across the sands and centuries. It costs 50 cents for a hunk the size of my fist—pretty cheap for such a long, dangerous journey.
Paula Froelich is a New York–based journalist and New York Times best-selling novelist. Her last piece for Gourmet Live covered celebrities’ secret eating habits.