Excerpt from Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Skeletons on the Zahara

A True Story of Survival

by Dean King

Skeletons on the Zahara
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  • First Published:
    Jan 2004, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2005, 385 pages

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As they neared the oasis, those who had been there before described its verdure and big wells to those who had not. From the lush oasis they would, replenished, continue on to Tombuctoo and its great riches. They would return to the north with elephants' tusks, gold dust and jewelry, gum senegal, ostrich feathers, and many slaves. A fine male slave could be bought for a two-dollar haik and sold back home for a hundred dollars. Yet now thirst coursed so deeply through their veins that greed for Tombuctoo's treasures no longer motivated them. They dreamed not of gold dust but only of purging their cracked throats of dust. To encourage them, Sidi Ishrel let it be known that they would rest the caravan there for twenty days.

When they arrived in Haherah, the news spread like flying sand to the back of the caravan, reaching many of the men before they had even set foot in the much-anticipated valley: There had been no rain in over a year. Haherah's famous wells were dry.

The cameleers panicked. For many, like Hamet and Seid, the camels and goods with them represented their whole fortune, all they possessed for the future support of their wives and children. The caravan disintegrated as men abandoned their stations and set out on their own, frantically scouring the brown valley for water.

After two fruitless days of searching, they realized that such an effort was hopeless. The despondent men made their way back to the caravan, where Sidi Ishrel marshaled them together in teams to remove sand and stones from the old dry wells and mine them deeper. For five days, the teams dug in unison but still found no water. Sidi Ishrel concluded that they had no hope of salvaging the caravan. They could only try to save themselves, so he ordered all but three hundred of the best camels to be slaughtered. They would drink their blood and the fluid stored in their rumens, and they would eat and dry as much of the meat as they needed.

Though aggrieved at what his losses would be, Hamet believed that this was, truthfully, their only choice. Thirty elders selected the camels to be spared, and the slaughter of the rest began. In the heat of the moment, with blood spilling from bellowing beasts and swirling dung dust burning the men's eyes, coating their tongues, and inflaming their minds, they began to quarrel. At first they only brandished their scimitars threateningly, but it was as if death must beget death. Once the crescent-shaped blades clashed, friends joined friends. There was no escaping the feverish battle that resulted. It engulfed the men like a fire sucking in oxygen, leaping from one pocket to the next. Some maimed and killed to slake their helpless frustration; others fought back in self-defense. Seid was stabbed in the arm with a dagger and badly wounded. In their fury, some of the men murdered Sidi Ishrel. More than two hundred others died that day. The survivors drank their blood and butchered five hundred camels for their fluid.

Early that evening, in the exhaustion and despair after the bloodbath, Hamet decided to gather his friends and leave Haherah on his own. He had been made a captain in his previous caravan and knew how to navigate the desert. He and his wounded brother spread the word among their allies to quietly prepare to depart that night. Hamet and Seid killed four of their six remaining camels and fed their blood and water to the two strongest. Hamet packed as much of their barley and merchandise as they could reasonably carry, for they could not arrive at Tombuctoo empty-handed.

Around midnight, Hamet led thirty men and thirty-two camels silently out of the valley into the inky, cloud-dark night. The plain roared with Allah's thunder as they went, but no rain fell.


North of the Niger River in the land Seid and Hamet called Soudan (now Mali), the merchants of Tombuctoo searched the horizon anxiously for the season's caravan. The famous walled city brimmed with fresh stores of gold and slaves to be exchanged for the goods they coveted from the far side of the great void. Once a seasonal camp of the central-Saharan Tuareg nomads, Tombuctoo had risen to prominence in the fourteenth century as the continent's chief marketplace and a locus of African Islam, with learned men and fine books. But its riches also made it a target, and it was sacked by Moroccan invaders in 1591, precipitating a slow but steady decline. Nonetheless, two centuries later, the caravans still came and were sometimes even larger than the one Hamet and Seid had set out in. When the brothers' small company finally limped into Tombuctoo, a total of twenty-one men and twelve camels had survived. They were weary, starving, broke, and alone. No one from their once mighty caravan had preceded them and no one followed.

Copyright © 2004 by Dean H. King.  All rights reserved.

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