Event Detail


Heart of the Sahara

John Pilkington Waiting list only
Wednesday, 24 Sep 2008


"To the Heart of the Sahara"


John Pilkington


Wednesday, 24 September 2008

The Hong Kong Fooll Club, Causeway Bay

6.30pm Drinks Reception; 7.30 pm Lecture

(If you would like to attend this lecture, please would you reply stating the number of tickets you would like to book; there is no need to pay for your tickets in advance.)

We are delighted to welcome to the Royal Geographical Society in Hong Kong John Pilkington, one of the most popular lecturers at RGS London, to speak on some of his expeditions. Mr Pilkington has spent the last 25 years travelling the World, on expeditions to some of its most fascinating sites. A great teller of travellers' tales, Mr. Pilkington's lecture is also illustrated with stunning photography.

In 2006, Mr Pilkington turned his attention to the Sahara, and in particular Timbuktu and the fabled salt mines of Taoudenni. Every week throughout the winter, a caravan of up to 50 camels arrives bellowing and snorting in Timbuktu. They are at the end of a threeweek, 700 km trek and each carries four huge slabs of Taoudenni salt the 'white gold' of the Sahara. In 2006, Mr Pilkington found himself three camels and a Moorish guide, U Batna, and set off from Timbuktu for the salt mines of Taoudenni.

At five am Mr Pilkington would find guide U Batna kneeling towards Mecca, deep in prayer and following three glasses of ridiculously sweet tea, they'd saddle up the camels and be on their way by six. U Batna spoke only Arabic, of which Mr Pilkington knew nothing, but as the trip progressed U Batna taught the words needed, like 'camel', 'sand', 'rice', 'tea' and most importantly 'keep walking'. The going was exhausting, but by a combination of walking and riding they kept up a good pace. At midday they'd stop for rice and more tea, carrying on until sunset. There is no road through the unending dunes and rough rock formations; travellers to Taoudenni choose their own routes and navigate by experience and instinct.

Salt has been mined in the Sahara for millennia, but the deposits at Taoudenni were only discovered in the 1500s. They come from an ancient time of higher rainfall when there was a salt lake in the Taoudenni basin. Later it solidified and was covered by mud, so the salt today lies some four metres below the flat surface of the basin. Working in teams of three or four, the miners dig pits down to this level, then cutting horizontal galleries in which they hack out the slabs using crude handmade axes.

After three weeks Mr Pilkington reached the salt mines and the extreme conditions there. There are no streets, no houses, no electricity, no fresh water, not even any cooking fuel apart from camel dung. Daytime temperatures reach 30°C in winter and more than 50°C in summer. The 100 or so miners survive on a diet of rice and millet, supplemented by camel meat. To slake their thirst they can choose between drinking the brackish contents of local wells or paying for water from far afield.

On the return journey Mr. Pilkington joined a salt caravan and found out just how tough desert life could be. The two cameldrivers and 30 camels were up before dawn and carried on well after dark, covering up to 60 km a day. Once under way, the caravan didn't stop. They even brewed tea on the hoof, using portable braziers which they swung in the breeze as they strode along. At night, they cooked rice together on cameldung campfires, and slept under the stars.

From Timbuktu the salt is shipped up the River Niger to the port of Mopti, where Moorish traders sell it on to people from a wide swathe of West Africa. Mr. Pilkington joined one of the longboats, known as pinasses, for the last stage of this ancient trade, unchanged for at least two millennia, gathering salt from the most gruelling desert on earth.

The explorer John Pilkington has been called "Britain's greatest tellers of travellers' tales". In 1983, after journeys in Africa and Latin America, he completed an 800 km solo crossing of the western Himalaya. His interest in Asia grew further with the opening in 1986 of the border between Pakistan and China, making it possible for the first time in 40 years to retrace virtually the whole of the Silk Road. John was one of the first modern travellers to do so, and he wrote about the journey in An Adventure on the Old Silk Road. This was followed in 1991 by An Englishman in Patagonia, recounting eight months spent exploring the southernmost tip of South America. In 2000, he became one of only five people in modern times to walk the 2,500 km Royal Road of the Incas in the Andes of Ecuador and Peru. Subsequently, he explored the Mekong River and, with two Tibetans, reached and mapped its source at over 5,200m.

Listeners to the BBC World Service are familiar with Mr Pilkington's adventure travel documentaries such as The Uttermost Part of the Earth, Pilkington in Patagonia, Pilkington in Kyrgyzstan, and most recently On the Trail of Butch and Sundance, an investigation in Bolivia of the most famous outlaws of the Wild West. He also contributes to the BBC's From Our Own Correspondent and writes regularly for newspapers and magazines. In 2006, the Royal Geographical Society presented him with the prestigious Ness Award for his work in popularising geography and a wider understanding of the world.

Members and their guests are most welcome to attend this lecture, which is HK$100 for Members and HK$150 for others.

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