Flipping through old National Geographics, I found the November 1965 'I Joined a Saharan Salt Caravan'. It describes the Tuaregs' trek from the oasis of Bilma, Niger, to the city of Agades, Niger. They carry sixty pound cones of a brown salt mined at Bilma by the Kinuri people.
I've been having fun trying all the different sorts of salt... does anyone know where I can get this Saharan salt... short of a West African vacation? (Someday, but not soon.)
Huzzah, the new chowhound means I could give this person an update.
I went out to Bilma two months ago, and the salt from there is still produced in the manner you read about. However, it is mostly intended for animal consumption, not human. Not that it would hurt anybody, but I guess it's just kind of rough and gray. Better salt for humans is produced a little further north in Seguedine. I still tasted both at the saltworks, and brought home samples of both, and they are a little different.
There are still camel caravans bringing it (and dates) to Agadez and elsewhere in October -- the track was littered with camel carcasses -- though trucks obviously have changed that. But it's still pretty rough going in a truck, and the salt takes up tons of room, so the camels serve a pretty good function.
Yeah, this was pretty fascinating stuff. However, the crowd that is likely to buy gourmet salt is unlikely to buy salt that to this day is mined by indentured slaves.
Here's an 2003 National Geographic update to your 1965 article.
The future of those camel caravans seems to be threatened by 4x4 trucks which can make the trip in days.
The best I could find was sources for African food, so you might want to email some of these places to see if they carry it or can get it.
However, I'm thinking this is going to have to wait for your trip to Timbuktu. While this was interesting, it was depressing as well. In this country it is unimaginable that people are still dying because of lack of iodized salt. Most of that salt seems to be used in country. Personally, after all I learned about it, it would depress me to see the stuff on the shelf in my kitchen.
On a brighter note, I did stumble on this great gourmet salt reference ... and yet I feel somehow guilty about considering high priced salt after reading all that stuff.
If you go to the home page there are all sorts of interesting salt products including the artisan salt collection.
Enjoy, I think.
I doubt it would be cost-efficient to export the salt, since I'm not sure it has any special qualities (of course, it could be marketed that way even if it didn't). I got a block in the market at Gorom Gorom (near Gao, relatively speaking) last year, not sure exactly where it was from, and it wasn't all that different from regular salt. Maybe less salty.
As far as means of production, I think the salt at Bilma is made differently than the salt from the mines at Taoudenni that are discussed in that article. I thought Bilma uses pits and evaporation rather than mines. I'm actually going out to Bilma and environs this spring, so I'll check how they're doing it. If you live in NYC, I could try to bring you some.