The world I am creating has flora and fauna based vaguely on that of Gondwana. As a result, there are no dogs, horses, or cows, and no domesticated animals of any sort. Having drawn my map and started building my civilizations, I want there to be trade across some expanses of desert. However, without any camels this would be tough.

Here are some specifics for the world that might be relevant:

  • The desert treks don't necessarily have to be long, just a few hundred kilometers, but they'll cross all sorts of desert environments (sandy, rocky) in particular desert mountains. Oasis can be expected as frequently as here on Earth

  • Technology level is bronze age.

  • The desired goods to be moved are heavy. Bronzeworking and glasswork is most advanced in a part of the world isolated by deserts. Bronze tools and weapons and decorative glass would be very valuable trade items. Otherwise, the usuals (silk, spices, gems) would be transported as well.

  • There are few large animals that could survive in the desert regions that humans might utilize. So far I only have ostrich-like ratites and megalania-like giant lizards. Neither is domesticated.

  • Magic does exist, but in a Conan sort of way. Magicians could summon a creature of darkness to move a treasure across a desert, but this is hardly an option available to the average merchant.

Given the constrains in this world, how can merchants move tons of merchandise across deserts?

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    $\begingroup$ I'm leaning heavily to the unhelpful they don't. We can cross deserts on foot but only with minimal load. I guess at best you could aim for a road from oasis to oasis. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:05
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    $\begingroup$ Lack of any domesticated animals, severely limits if not eliminates civilization. Animals provide meat, milk, wool and leather, all of which are important for society at every tech level (so far). You can substitute hunting for some of those resources, but due to unpredictability and poor efficiency this will limit size of settlements. $\endgroup$
    – M i ech
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:16
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    $\begingroup$ @Miech That is a discussion for another question. I'm trying to concentrate on crossing deserts here. Even if there were domesticated animals, without the camel specifically, you can't get too far across deserts with thirsty horses or oxen. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:19
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    $\begingroup$ Consider the colonial era African safari, or modern Himalayan mountain climbing trips, in which all the supplies are carried by human porters. (Or the Yukon gold rush, where miners had to carry all their supplies for the winter from the Alaskan coast.) Of course you aren't going to carry really heavy goods. Instead of exporting e.g. heavy & fragile glassware, export glassworkers and their tools. $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 18:43
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    $\begingroup$ Flora and fauna like those of Gondwana means no camels and also no humans. No humans, no need to transport goods across the desert. Problem solved. ... Alternatively, use the same handwavium that gives you humans to give you a suitable animal to pull the wagons. It doesn't have to look much like a camel, horse, ox, or any other present-day pack animal. $\endgroup$
    – David K
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 20:10

15 Answers 15



Not electronics, I mean, takeovers. No, I don't mean coup... just read...

The basic idea is that to move the merchandise, it has to change hands many times across various small settlements, preferably around one day apart (considering the load to carry).

Now, of course, everybody along the way needs payment - at least the people who run the services on each settlement. That means that there must be a payment scheme for the transportation system, such that everybody gets its share.

How each settlement provides the transport service is up to them, and how much they request as payment is up to them too.

As long as you can hire them to move stuff to the next settlement, it does not matter if they use a magic invocation, a weird vehicle, and lots of human labor or whatever. This means that they can optimize for the terrain they have around them. That is the key. You do not really need to find a single transportation mechanism that works for all terrains.

I like the Sail chariots idea, I up voted that, It could be one of many. Play it to its strengths.

In addition, solutions that are efficient for a given environment probably will be popular among nearby settlements.

I am basing this idea on the real world silk road(s). The merchandise did not move directly from the many manufactures to the buyers, instead merchants buy from the manufactures, and sell to other merchants, who sell to other merchants, and so on, until they reach the final user.

For this to work, you need to have goods that have a known demand. However, if we are talking about big projects (as the mentioned merchandise suggests) it is not as good idea to buy the merchandise, store it, and hope to sell it at a higher price.

This is also inspired by that mentality that economy can create things that the individual parts does not know how to. And idea presented in I, Pencil, but just an example of emergent systems.

Instead, I would suggest a different financial mechanic: The buyer offers to buy certain items, the providers and relay points organize to make a proposal to the buyer where they say how much it will cost to bring the merchandise, if the buyer agrees, they move the good. Perhaps pay in two parts, one before and one after the delivery.

You could consider changing the idea of offering to buy to a bounty. This only works when merchandise is small and has good demand. Otherwise, the risk and effort would be too much to put on and end up losing the bounty to a third party.

Similarly, a group stealing merchandise from another group in order to try to get to the buyer probably is probably hard to pull off. Doing it and getting away with it, probably implies to kill the people who were doing the service. Once you put them out of the business, you don’t have them to steal from them do you? If you want to continue to profit from this, you will have to take over the business. If this is a threat, you will put guards to protect the merchandise, and after a few iterations, the stronger group will have the monopoly.

I am saying that this is not an environment for competition, but for monopoly (only a few people keep the control of the transport routes, and they set the prices). Pretty much a cartel (just not a drug cartel, well maybe).

Note: it does not have to be a private buyer noble, the buyer can be the government regent. Just consider these people to be contractors.

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    $\begingroup$ This is very well thought out +1. Plus since some of the high value trade goods might be coca or coffee, it could be a drug cartel! $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:50
  • $\begingroup$ I love the first paragraph $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 15:12

Sail chariots

On Earth, we seldom have used terrestrial transport propelled by sails because, unlike sea winds, terrestrial winds are weaker, more turbulent and thus less constant and predictable, and also because of non-flat terrain. But hey, we're come here for the handwavium, haven't we?

Add constant, steady winds, and make your chariots sail the desert, either with wheels or skis. EDITED: Since you need to go through mountains, your handwavium must include canyons. Deep, narrow valleys carved by ancient rivers long time gone, or even because of the wind. Wind gets trapped in those canyons due to the thermal gradient between the sun-baked surface and the mostly shadowed bed of the canyon, thus provoking a tunnel effect of strong, steady winds. Probably even seasional, blowing inwards during the winter, outwards during the summer, so the caravans must follow the pattern of the wind.

  • $\begingroup$ This is interesting, but how could a sail-sled be used to cross mountains? $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ Relevant: Dark Sun setting for AD&D has those. They sail in the silt (very fine dust) sea. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ For a real life example of a canyon wind tunnel check out the Columbia River Gorge near Hood River, Oregon. $\endgroup$
    – Kyle
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 19:24
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    $\begingroup$ Could a kite pulled cart perform better? $\endgroup$
    – PStag
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 23:13
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    $\begingroup$ @PStag Nice question! I don't know, though I suspect not. We have some light vehicles propelled by kites. They take advantage that winds are usually stronger some meters high above ground, but the problem is, kite must be extremely light to fly and so, not very much resistent. Modern materials allow for light but strong rigid body, and resistent but light rope, but without these all the advantage of slightly stronger winds is lost between the kite and the rope weights, methinks. $\endgroup$
    – Rekesoft
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 6:40

They go round the desert

Whilst there are areas of the world where camels are key to transportation, there are nearly always alternative routes. And even with camels, areas such as the Sahara desert were completely impassible.

Is this a problem? Not really. Long-distance overland travel is a really modern invention. As late as the 19th century, if you wanted to get goods from northern England to southern England then you went to your nearest port and put them on a boat - you didn't even contemplate moving them by road. In Europe, everything travelled along the rivers. Indeed, the biggest transportation advance in the 18th and early 19th century was canals as an addition to natural waterways. Certainly there were people living out in the Maghreb who relied on their camels, but back in the day, all the serious traffic followed the Nile or followed the coast.

It's also not going too far to say that the only way people could live in the Maghreb is because they had camels. If you don't have camels, then you can't easily survive there, so the locations of towns will be limited to where there is sufficient water for crops and not too great a distance from the next town along (or at least the next oasis). Trade has to travel from one place to another place, and if there's no-one living there then no-one's going to travel for trade, so there's no reason for anyone to even try.

Horses and donkeys are nice, but they don't particularly speed up travel, because people walk alongside them. Mainly they just increase what you can carry. If we suppose that humans would domesticate something, even if it's not particularly desert-adapted, you'll get more efficient trade than simply sending a bunch of blokes with big packs on their backs. That'll keep the smaller frontier towns supplied. The larger towns will all be on coasts or rivers though.

In short, if you're planning a pre-industrial world with extensive overland trade, and you're not invoking magic or some special domesticated creature which makes things easier, then you're almost certainly not heading down a realistic path.

  • $\begingroup$ Note: Incense Route of the Nabataeans. Petra, Avdat in particular. If they had a good enough reason, ancient people could cross the desert. $\endgroup$
    – chx
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 4:39
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    $\begingroup$ @chx True, but they didn't so much cross the desert as live in the desert. Specialist agriculture and nomadic/transhumance animal-keeping allowed them to spread their ecological footprint over a much larger area to sustain themselves, and trading came as a direct result of that travelling. Also the Negev is not a very large area, in comparison to the "few hundred kilometres" trek the OP is considering. And even then we're talking relatively small quantities of incredibly high-value spices, not the "tons" the OP asks for. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ @chx You're right though - if you can imagine a way for people to actually live there, then you can have trade as part of a nomadic existence, or at least kick-started by it. But you need people to be able to live there first, and the trade needs to be small, high-value things which don't impede the nomads. Both of these, especially the latter, seem to be blocked by the parameters of the question. $\endgroup$
    – Graham
    Commented Apr 24, 2017 at 10:42

What about hot air balloons? The earliest believed form of the balloons goes as far back as approximately 220 A.D.

Using torches or some other heat source they can heat up the air. The balloons themselves can be made from some sort of canvas or cloth material.

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    $\begingroup$ I like this one. All the others are talking about roads and carriages. But this one provides a different kind of transportation. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 7:17
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    $\begingroup$ Believe it or not the first modern hot air balloon with its own heat source did not fly until 1960. I think this would be infeasible with bronze age fabrics and heating technology. Also inability to steer at all is a problem. $\endgroup$
    – user16107
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 13:56
  • $\begingroup$ This also may not work very well in the desert, since the surrounding air is already hot. Less temperature differential -> less lift. I like the out-of-the-box thinking, though. $\endgroup$
    – Bobson
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 18:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Bobson They could travel at night, when the desert gets really cold. $\endgroup$
    – user9981
    Commented Apr 22, 2017 at 7:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Bobson en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solar_balloon I like the balloon idea, but getting hold of a suitable airtight material would be difficult. Silk sealed with mucus from some other animal perhaps? Note also that a man on the ground can tow a fairly large balloon in any direction if it is not too windy $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 13:48

Without any form of domesticated animal the only real option available is to make travelling across the desert easier for humans, at which point slaves/servants/just a normal workforce would be able to transport the goods.

My preferred solution?


Given that you're building a new culture from scratch the lack of domesticated animals will have made itself felt a lot sooner. Lacking in animals to pull through difficult terrain it's not unreasonable to assume that humans would instead look towards modifying the terrain itself, pouring effort into establishing and maintaining easy-to-traverse trade routes. Roads, regular way-stations with wells, artificial waterways/canals, planting desert areas in order to establish solid terrain to trade through, tunnelling through or building bridges over dangerous mountain trails. Basically generations of traders building on each other's successes in order to expand the network of places it's easy to move from a-to-b through.

Once your infrastructure starts to be established trade will become a lot easier and, bizarrely, more profitable. If the first five people to try route A do nothing but establish five way stations with wells and a small inn then trader 6 will be able to rest (and trade at!) each of the way stations on their way to location B. Traders can be expected to arise doing nothing but supplying the trade stations, and if the routes are easy enough to traverse they can do so on foot, while heavier traders might use wheeled human powered conveyances. The traders might pay people to keep the network maintained, or it could be the waypoints that pay, or it could be a communal 'lets keep this working' kind of society.

Basically: Forget the nomadic style of caravans and move more toward established co-operative trade efforts (or machiavellian schemes and backstabbery). A trade network based on nothing but humans is going to take some serious ingenuity and time to establish, and will likely require an awful lot of maintenance.

Can anyone smell plot hooks?


No domesticated beasts of burden implies that human slaves / serfs are the beasts of burden. Now the problem is that humans make poor beasts of burden, meaning that they eat too much, need special food (vitamins and essential amino acids) and drink too much water compared to their transportation capacity. (Humans are essentially apes, who evolved in an environment with lots of fruit and water, where their feeble kidneys, abundant transpiration and picky metabolism where not disadvantageous.) And BTW, there has never been a bronze-age culture without dogs and beasts of burden; you are inventing a culture from complete absolute scratch, there is nothing similar in our known history.

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    $\begingroup$ This points out the problems that motivated the question, but doesn't really provide much for an answer. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:06
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion: The answer is obvious -- slaves or serfs. Something must carry the goods or pull the wagons, and since humans are the only non-wild animals, guess who is carrying the goods? $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:09
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    $\begingroup$ The strange thing is just that humans have developed the "technologies" for bronze- and gem-work, silkmaking, and trade, but not the "technologies" for domesticating animals. Humans didn't just find dogs, horses, and cows lying about the place, any more than silk shirts. The breeds we use were made by humans. So the issue is analgous to "what if medieval society had never invented the wheel" -- then one supposes they'd carry stuff about instead of having carts, like Aztecs. No camels or horses: carry stuff about. Modern technology but with no boats or aeroplanes: carry stuff about ;-) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 9:51

I found something strange that might help. It's still in use today! The Chinese Wheelbarrow

The Chinese Wheelbarrow!

Here is a link to more information, if you care to go down the rabbit hole. Chinese Wheelbarrow

OK, here's how this wonderful tech can be useful for you:

It can hold a substantial amount of mass.

It can be propelled by one guy (slave beast of burden).

It can be adapted to be pulled by the big ol' birds, once you work out how to train them without being kicked into next week!

The coolest thing is that You Can Add Sails!

The article says most of this much better than I can. The upshot is that it is a practical, low tech, method of transporting heavy loads for long distances, and it is primarily human powered. The large central wheel supports a large amount of mass without the operator having to expend a huge amount of effort lifting it every time you have to go somewhere. Skilled loading means you can balance the load in a way that whatever is on the front counters the load on the back so the net effort to lift by the operator could theoretically be almost null.

Another advantage is that with one large wheel in the center, this contraption is very nimble, able to move on narrow footpaths.

The large wheel also makes it easier to move this thing on bumpy terrain.

For the carrying capacity, it is very lightweight. Once unloaded, there is little more than a frame and a wheel. Easy enough for a couple of people to lift and carry.

Finally, these are so simple, they are cheap to build.

You will have some fairly obvious downsides though. You may be able to cross the kind of desert that has a lot of hard packed earth, but you are not going to go across sand-dunes.

Hills are going to suck, but then they sucked for covered, horse drawn wagons as well.

You might be able to get through swamps with care on a marked, established trail, but if you get a lot of mud, you will have to unload, pull the barrow out, and then reload.

It is also more than a little unstable side to side. If it tips, you might have to stop and repack your cargo.

I can now see a long line of burly slaves, pushing a line of these across the Arizona Desert, with sails erected. Moving swiftly towards the forest of Joshua Trees and Saguaro Cactus...

  • $\begingroup$ I really like this idea. Maybe you could use a wide-wheeled version (even with studs) that stays on top of the sand better? Also, how do they get the wood? Just trade for it? Harvest it from an Oasis? This could make wood a really valuable commodity out there. $\endgroup$
    – Martin_xs6
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 15:39
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    $\begingroup$ In a sand dune dessert, yes wood would hard to come by. In many other kinds of desert, not so much, Example, Saguaro ribs can be used for lightweight structures. there are all kinds of trees that can do well in in very dry climates. Mesquite trees, Joshua trees, various junipers. Pines at higher elevations. If you look at the design, you don't really need really long lengths of wood or heavy planks. Your caravan merchants don't really have to live in the sand dunes. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 15:50
  • $\begingroup$ @Martin_xs6 Not sure how a wide wheel would work here, mainly because it would be difficult to get a very wide wheel without them being very heavy. Maybe two wheels, side by side with planks between them. $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 17:20
  • $\begingroup$ I mean, 2 wheels side by side with planks between them is basically a big wheel too. It doesn't have to be solid. They could also just nail boards onto a smaller wheel to make it wider. Basically, anything to make sure the thing doesn't sink in the sand. $\endgroup$
    – Martin_xs6
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 17:28
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    $\begingroup$ They would also have to zig-zag going up each dune. It'll take a long time $\endgroup$
    – Paul TIKI
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 17:58

Slaves/Baggage Carriers

This is kind of a boring answer, but it is the one that was used in real life. For a very long time the East African bush was impassible for domesticated animals due to the tsetse fly which would kill them almost immediately. During WW1, the allies invaded Tanzinea to drive out General Vorbeck. Since they couldn't use animals, and didn't have vehicles that could traverse the terrain, they would bring huge columns of baggage carriers with them to transport food/water/ammo/etc. The death toll among these workers was extremely high (far higher than for the soldiers, I recall hearing ~80% casualties in a college history class) due to exhaustion and disease.

Ultimately, it's not a terribly effective solution, but it is (sadly) tried and true. Plus, for a bronze age civilization it is by far the easiest to implement. That said, the effectiveness will rely on a readily available source of slaves, as this goes through them very quickly.


A human could carry perhaps 80 lbs (a lot depends on distribution here, but let's go with this). Every day's worth of food and water requires ~8 lbs of that weight. This means they can travel 10 days across the desert to reach a destination (but with no cargo). Assuming 20 miles per day (roughly how fast historical armies could march), and you have a max range of 100 miles without access to food or water along the way. After that it becomes a question of how much cargo you can fit on. If there's an oasis every 50 miles, you can have each person carry ~40 lbs of trade goods. These estimates may be generous though, so feel free to reduce them a bit (maybe only 20-30 lbs).


I'm leaning heavily to the unhelpful they don't. We make terrible beasts of burden out in the water scarse desert.

What about a pulling system? It won't be incredibly efficient I imagine. But hear me out. Each oasis has a small settlement. It has the water you need to work your human slaves. So why not move the burden of the work to the oasis? The mountain must come to Muhammad if Muhammad dies of thirst in the mountains.

So I envision some sort of sled or cart. On unpaved sandy roads a sled might work best. Attach on opposing sides a rope all the way to the next oasis. Now this likely requires a system of pulleys on poles. They could also be used to lighten the load of your pulling slaves a bit.

Your slaves walk and pull the rope till the sled reaches their settlement. It's then loaded on the next sled and possibly by smoke signaled to start the pulling on their end.

I'm not calling it effecient or easy. But I think it could work with high enough quality rope. Possibly hair or leather based?

  • $\begingroup$ Not bad but with no animals you'll struggle to get leather or hair. Human skin leather could work I guess. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:25
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    $\begingroup$ @Bellerophon First, ew. Second, you can still skin wild animals. Those giant lizards I mentioned, for instance. There are also elephants and giant sloths and crocodiles and giant snakes and things elsewhere on the continent, they just don't do you much good for crossing a desert. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:28
  • $\begingroup$ That's both gross and something I forgot about. Human leather, I rather stick with human hair I'd say. It can grow to a nice length too. Slow but not terribly so. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ Nice table at Langman - Hemp rope. A 36 mm hemp rope has a breaking load of 92 kN (about 9000 kilograms-force) and weighs 1 kg/meter. 20 kilometers of such rope (allowing for 10 km between the oases) would weigh 20 tons... Just the rope, never mind the wagon and merchandise. Epic teams of slaves turning the capstans... And a place with villages every 10 km is hardly a desert. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:31
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion Hunting and killing things rarely produces industrial quantities of goods though. Better to farm human skin of corpses. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:32

Gondwana existed until early Jurassic period.

We don't know if dinosaurs would be good to be domesticated, but for sure there were many that were suitable to work as beast of burden.

The hip sockets faced downwards and the knobs on the femurs were in line with the femur. This "pillar-erect" arrangement appears to have evolved independently in various archosaur lineages, for example it was common in Rauisuchia and also appeared in some aetosaurs.


This means that you probably had some animals with legs that really worked like horse or camel legs.

Of course these were (probably) a cold blooded animals (or at least, some of them was mostly cold blooded), but on the hot desert this doesn't really matter that much.

I can't find any specific example of desert species, but given that reptiles are reasonably common near modern deserts, and given that it's your world, your caravans could be pretty epic. Just beware, there already are many examples of such rides, so this may not be novel enough for your purpose. But still, it gets the job done.


I think you provided the answer in your question.

If there are no suitable beasts of burden to carry the stuff, you could spend decades or centuries engaging in animal husbandry to get one (which doesn't help in the meantime), use large trains of people to carry stuff (which is very sub-optimal, for reasons mentioned in lots of other answers), not transport the goods, or fall back on magic in some capacity.

As you say:

Magic does exist, but in a Conan sort of way. Magicians could summon a creature of darkness to move a treasure across a desert, but this is hardly an option available to the average merchant.

To which I'd ask, "why not"? If there are magicians available, and no other viable method of moving large quantities of heavy good across inhospitable terrain, that's all that's left, as far as options go. Magicians need gold (or money or whatever) to finance their studies into the dark arts/world domination plans/attempts at undead immortality/etc., and merchants need a way to transport their goods. Merchants pay magicians to provide magical beats of burden, magicians get the money they need. That's the whole foundation of commerce and free enterprise - people exchanging goods and services to their mutual benefit.

There's no reason that it shouldn't apply to the Magical Transportation as a Service industry in your world, and in fact, the lack of other good options strikes me as a fantastic business opportunity for magicians. Why stir up the locals into lynching you by summoning demons and such to enslave them when you can make a fortune providing transportation services for the merchant class instead? Seems easier, safer and more profitable to me, at least.

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    $\begingroup$ Following the Conan mythos, magic requires years of intensive study of ancient books, consort with mind-bending powers from the beyond, and significant personal sacrifice. The few who are able to perform feats of magic generally end up as insane, evil, or at the very least anti-social. Hiring a magician is out of the question for all but the richest kings. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 17:59
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    $\begingroup$ @kingledion Well, you should tweak that a bit, or you do not have any good options. It could be a career progression thing - magicians just starting out need a source of income, so they get it by providing transportation services to the merchants. As time goes on and the mind-bending powers from beyond take their toll, magicians become insane and move on from the merchant services industry to world domination, unholy evil and general anti-social insanity. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 18:56

Unfortunately they cannot. Nor would it be likely that advanced technologies would develop in an isolated community.

The scenario you present really leaves a single option. Human transport. You could potentially augment that with carts etc, but that would require significant infrastructure, namely roads.

  • Humans can walk between 20 and 30 miles (32-48 km) per day, but that would be carrying no more than necessary.

  • At 200 - 300 km that works out 124 - 186 miles which means at an average, unburdened pace you are looking at a minimum of 4 days and max of around 9 days.

Here's where the problem starts. Carrying enough water for 4 - 9 days in the desert is going to be difficult. Especially when you consider this. As should be obvious the higher the temperature and the harder the work, the more you sweat, the more you sweat the more water you require.

The only way this is going to be possible/practical is if water is constantly available in your desert, which is a little counter intuitive.

A couple options

  • The trade routes follow a river (the Nile as an example)
  • Regular almost daily access to oases though you could probably have some two day spans.

Short Answer:


Long Answer:

I will tell you the tale of how the Great Tradeway came to be. Many aspects of culture will be explained in the process - the Water Festival, the Bargain, the tribute paid every winter solstice at the bronze statue of the Mad Wizard, and the enduring symbol of the Great City - Copperopolis of Gondwana.

Legend has it the Mad Wizard was originally from the city across the sand. He crossed the great desert to our city of Copperopolis to study magic. Everyone knows Copperopolis is the center where fabulous things are built and wondrous crafted items are easy to come by.

(Incidentally, do you know how hard it is to get a shadow demon to carry a box of precision-crafted glass beakers GENTLY across the desert? After receiving one’s fourth or fifth crate of broken glass, serious students of wizardry give up and relocate to Copperopolis. Sure, it’s in the middle of nowhere, but there’s something about that sand that makes the best glass.)

Time went by and the Mad Wizard’s power grew, but he was unhappy. He missed his homeland. He had grown up in the lush vales on the other side of the desert and was used to eating fresh apples at all times of the year. In Copperopolis, there were no apples to be had.

He frequently sent his shadow demons across the desert to the apple orchards, and they brought him crates of the treasured fruit. But his dissatisfaction grew with each trip. Surely this sort of menial work was beneath him! With all his power and knowledge, surely he could come up with a better solution than to waste his precious magic on breakfast!

Other wizards, less canny wizards, have used their magic to rule as tyrants over the villagers. Such cruel wizards solve their problems through force and fear. The Mad Wizard was not a kind man, but he was wise. He didn’t want to waste his time ruling a kingdom any more than he wanted to waste his magic using shadow demons as fruit vendors. He chose to cooperate with the non-wizard inhabitants of the city.

He called together the greatest merchants, the best craftsmen, the most reknowned cartographers, and together they formed a plan. The route was planned, the Bargain struck.

That fall, once the harvests were in, teams of builders set out across the sand. They built a waystation a mere four hours’ walk into the desert. They dug great pits deep in the sand, down where the sun could not reach. Water carriers brought them sustenance from the town, crossing to the work site at night and returning to their homes before the sun rose. Meanwhile, the local potters were busy crafting vast pottery cisterns. Once the pits were dug, a wooden framework was built around each cistern with carrying poles. It took twelve people working together to lift each cistern. Teams of workers hauled each cistern out to the work site and placed them in the pits. The builders then crafted a simple stone shelter over the pit, protecting the cisterns from dust and sun.

That night was the very first Water Festival. Everyone in Copperopolis gathered together. Each able-bodied person brought some dried provisions and the biggest flask of water they could carry. They walked out to the waystation, gave the provisions to the laborers, poured their flasks into the cisterns, and returned to the city before dawn. Meanwhile, those unable to make the journey remained in the city and cooked a great feast for the water carriers. Upon their return at dawn, the whole city held a marvelous celebration.

From the first waystation, the builders moved another four hours’ walk into the desert and dug a second pit. Each night, water carriers moved between the new work site and the newly-complete waystation, bringing food and water to the workers. Each night, water carriers would bring water from the city to the first waystation to replenish the cisterns. The pits were completed and new cisterns were brought to the second waystation. These were slowly filled via flasks carried from the first waystation.

The builders advanced another four hours’ walk and began their work again. In this fashion, the first oasis was reached. Then the second, the third, and so on. The path became well marked with stone markers at regular intervals, and stamped flat by thousands of feet. Soft sections of sand were reinforced with timber and gravel. Work on the Great Tradeway halted during the planting and harvesting season, then began again every Fall Equinox.

It took years to complete.

Finally, when the last chasm was bridged and the last waystation complete, the Great Tradeway was ready for use. Merchants at both cities gathered together every wheeled conveyance at their disposal, loaded them high with goods, and pulled them across the desert. They carried little water with them, as the cisterns were kept well stocked by the water carriers stationed at each city and each oasis.

The first carts arrived at Copperopolis, stuffed to the brim with apples. The Mad Wizard selected the juciest crate for himself and gave the rest to the city. Every inhabitant received at least a few. Now, this may not seem like much of a reward nowadays, but back then only the wealthiest merchants ever saw fresh fruit from the vale across the sand.

Every fall, after the harvest, is the Water Festival. It has grown considerably since the first one. Now, teams of runners sprint across the sand in a great race to stock the cisterns with cartloads of water. Long-distance runners compete to be first to stock the most distant waystations. There is great honor in winning the race. The Dawn Feast has grown in size and reputation, eventually becoming a week-long festival. The Mad Wizard has long since passed on, but they still honor his memory with a tribute of apples at the base of his statue at the start of each trading season. Every inhabitant of Copperopolis still receives a share of the first cart of apples across the desert.

And this is why the symbol of endurance in the face of great challenge - the symbol of Copperopolis overcoming any obstacle - is an apple.


Eventually this road could be replaced by a series elevated canals built out of cement. They pump water through it by use of a series of water towers and Archimedes’ Screws. They float barges through the flat parts, build a road through the mountain parts. Once the Great Tradeway became well established, the engineers and merchants would try to improve the system, and this might be a natural evolution of the route.


Bedouin using underground concrete cisterns to store water in the desert, sometime between 6500 BC and 700 BC: International Association of Certified Home Inspectors: The History of Concrete by Nick Gromicko and Kenton Shepard https://www.nachi.org/history-of-concrete.htm

A real-world example of a civilization using the power of teamwork to build 25,000 miles’ worth of highway through the Andes Mountains (the Capac Ñan) without iron tools or draft animals: Smithsonian Journeys Quarterly: The Inca Road, How the Inca Empire Engineered a Road Across Some of the World’s Most Extreme Terrain by Hannah Bloch http://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/how-inca-empire-engineered-road-would-endure-centuries-180955709/?utm_source=smithsonianhistandarch&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=201507-hist&spMailingID=22963197&spUserID=NzU3NjY0OTQzOTMS1&spJobID=600087191&spReportId=NjAwMDg3MTkxS0

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization World Heritage Center’s entry for the Capac Ñan (Qhapaq Ñan): http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1459

Wikipedia article for Archimedes’ Screw, which was actually in use 350 years before Archimedes lived. This screw was originally cast in bronze and was used to pump water uphill, theoretically used to water the Hanging Gardens of Babylon: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archimedes%27_screw

  • $\begingroup$ The amount of labor (and consumed water) increases exponentially with each subsequent way station. Supply caches would certainly make passage possible, but very expensive. $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 23:42
  • $\begingroup$ I agree. There's nothing about this plan that is simple, cheap, or even a good idea. Getting a Bronze Age culture across a large desert without pack animals is going to be an inefficient, massive undertaking no matter what is used. $\endgroup$
    – Snapdragon
    Commented Apr 23, 2017 at 23:53

Cartage, pushed/pulled by human labor.

Most of the suggestions regarding using humans for transport assume individual porters carrying individual loads. However, you stated that your technology is roughly Bronze Age. The wheel did exist during the Bronze Age; in fact, chariots were used, according to this article from Wikipedia:

The horse chariot was a fast, light, open, two-wheeled conveyance drawn by two or more horses that were hitched side by side, and was little more than a floor with a waist-high guard at the front and sides. It was initially used for ancient warfare during the Bronze and Iron Ages; but, after its military capabilities had been superseded by cavalry, as horses were gradually bred to be bigger, the chariot was used for travel, in processions, for games, and in races.

The carts would allow teams of humans to pull more than the sum of their individual carrying capacities.

The critical question is whether wheels would work in the type of desert you've designed. Considering that when you use the words "the desert," most people assume a sandy desert, such as the Sahara, probably not. However, alternatives might exist, such as:

  • Sledges.
  • Wider wheels. Essentially lay a barrel on its side and use it for a wheel to provide flotation on the sand; depending on the desert, the teamsters pulling the cart might also need to use sandshoes (snowshoes) to give themselves better flotation and reduce their effort.
  • Tracked vehicles. See my description of "wider wheels," and then wrap a bronze-age track around them, again, made from overlapping planks, bark, or some other available substance.

To get around the issue of supplies, caravan routes would likely have semi-permanent camps or waypoints not more than a day or two apart. As someone mentioned earlier, they might also not be straight routes, instead following routes from oasis to oasis, if such exist.


Note that, prior to posting this answer, I had missed this answer, which proposed the Chinese wheelbarrow.


Paid Labourers, if they can build the pyramids they can transport goods across a desert.

Edit: Paid labourers are capable of moving tons of goods across long distances, and can be made to carry water where necessary. Nothing else needs to be said really, it's the obvious answer considering the limitations stated in the question.

Failing that, use slaves.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Pyramids were build by paid laborers, at least the majority of the work was done by them. Generally in time of year they couldn't farm. Also they were build along the Nile, the very opposite of a desert environment. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ This looks really short. It's more a comment than an answer. Could you please flesh out your answer a bit to provide more detail? $\endgroup$
    – Secespitus
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:04
  • $\begingroup$ I don't see how one follows from the other. $\endgroup$
    – kingledion
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:04
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ The carry capacity of a human that carries their own water in a desert over a multi day march is pitiful and not competible with the requested carry capacity. $\endgroup$
    – Mormacil
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 14:11
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @CallumBradbury If it's not possible for one human being (paid or otherwise) to carry the water he requires to cross the desert (let alone the actual cargo), then how does adding more people help? The water requirements for the whole caravan will increase proportionately to the number of people involved. $\endgroup$
    – Steve-O
    Commented Apr 20, 2017 at 15:36

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