This mine is in the middle of nowhere, one of the more inhospitable places on earth, yet men manage to live there several months out of the year. Well outside the inhabitable belt of Sahara-Sahel where the nomads graze their animals, Taoudenit is in a 650km radius of no-mans-land. Few from the south have ever ventured here, leaving it to the nomads and the miners. The miners were traditionally the slaves of the transporters and other exploiters of the mine, now often the descendants of these same slaves, though free return to Taoudenit to earn a living, as do other individuals seeking employment.
For several years under the dictator Moussa Traoré, Taoudenit was also the location of a detention centre for political prisoners and serious criminals, adding to the distrust and fear of the place held by southerners. As a detention site it is criminally inhumane but also ideal -- there is no way to escape; any who tried would die of thirst. The detention site is now only ruins and did not interrupt the extraction of salt anyhow, as it was several kilometres away for the mining sites.
For people concerned with human rights, Taoudenit is still a delicate topic, for while the miners are free men and go there voluntarily, some raise questions of exploitation by merchants selling necessities to the miners. The captive market with no competition drives prices high. Living conditions are unimaginably difficult. The heat and salinity are both so elevated as to make the uninitiated immediately ill.
Everything is salt. Taoudenit is a huge deposit of salt. For three hundred square kilometres there is nothing but. When the miners clear debris off an area and begin cutting into the good salt, they start by cutting out large blocks that are then cut into four bars, of which three are transportable and one is waste. These “waste” bars are used to construct their lodgings. Few have flip-flops, let alone gloves, and salt dust permeates everything. The water collected from a well several kilometres away is salt; water so salty the camels won’t drink it, but these miners do, six months out of the year.
Being deep in the desert, Taoudenit is hot during the day and cold at night. The miners are never comfortable. But in the summer months (May-July) it gets so hot it is unliveable. Temperatures regularly surpass 55˚C or 130˚F
There is no money in Taoudenit; they trade. Miners purchase peanuts, tea, sugar and other staples with bars of salt. Even their transport is paid in salt. In recent years some merchants with large trucks will transport a crowd of miners to Taoudenit at the beginning of the season. Each man pays his fare with a couple bars of salt, the truck comes back full of salt.
Some merchants hire miners whom they pay and/or provide for during their stay, and receive the greater part of their work as their due, Other transporters make deals with the private miners already there for a 50/50 share of all salt transported to Timbuktu.