Monday, January 26, 2009

Baby, it's cold outside!

Curling up with a good book is a time-honored way to cope with winter, but some books are just more warming than others. Take, for example, Michael Benanav's Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold. Benanav, an adventure traveller with a penchant for extreme environments, decided to join one of the camel caravans travelling between Timbuktu and the desert salt mines of Taoudenni, Mali. These caravans have been making the journey to haul the precious white gold - slabs of solid salt - for the past 1,000 years over what is now one of the last remaining camel caravan routes in the Sahara.

Benanav wanted the "real thing" and that's what he got. The desert nomads who work the caravan route and the salt mines are not in the business of entertaining tourists and no quarter was given. Benanav spent 40 days and covered nearly a thousand miles of the most rugged terrain in the world - sun, saddlesores, monotony, searing heat, exhaustion, slowly rotting food, and sand, sand, sand. He spins a captivating and refreshingly honest tale, avoiding the self-indulgences of many such travelogues and resisting the understandable temptation to romanticize. By the time the mudwalls of Timbuktu are once again on the horizon, Benanav and his fellow travelers have forged strong bonds of mutual respect and friendship. He will never be a true azali but he can mount a walking camel with the best of them.

Benanav includes just enough pictures to be tantalizing; I wanted more and discovered that the library has a wonderful pictorial work on the Sahara Desert that is the perfect complement. Between the two of them, you should find yourself toasty warm (or at least, fully appreciative of why our part of the globe is called the Temperate Zone).

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