VOETSPORE DIARY, with Johan Badenhorst
It is somewhere in the Western Sahara.
The GPS indicated it was on the Mauritanian side of the Morocco border. But the borders in the north of Africa are imaginary lines, drawn with a ruler on a map. There is no indication when you cross from one country to another. We could have been in Mauritania, Morocco, the Western Sahara or Algeria.
Here, in the middle of the vast desert, we found a salt mine.
I’ve seen many salt gathering operations in southern Africa – on the West Coast near Veldrift, at the lagoons near Port Elizabeth, the abandoned salt yards at Papendorp and the massive enterprise at Walvis Bay in Namibia.
Salt-containing sea water is guided into shallow dams. The sun’s heat then evaporates the water. Once the water is gone, the salt that remains on the bed of the dam is scraped together. That’s how we gather salt. In the Sahara it is a different kettle of fish.
Salt has for many years dominated the economies of the people living in the Sahara, and on the edge of the massive desert. Salt is one of the prime commodities in the region. It is claimed that a few hundred years ago one kilogram of salt was traded for one kilogram of gold. It was truly worth its weight in gold.
The importance of the salt was due to the fact that it acted as a preserving agent. The only way to survive in the desert was to preserve your food with salt. Before fridges, this was the only way.
We were looking for one of the salt mines in Mauritania. But travelling in the Sahara is a little difficult. If you get lost, if your vehicle breaks down, if you run into trouble – chances of survival are slim.
There is no shade and no shelter. There is little topographical aid from the landscape. We were fortunate to be guided by two Mauritanian men in a Toyota Hilux, equipped with a Garmin GPS.
The terrain was generally not too difficult. As with all desert driving, the key was to maintain momentum, especially in the deep sand. The diesel Cruisers were doing well. There was no sign of life. No people and no vegetation. Occasionally we encountered a few camels, and were astounded again by these strange looking creatures’ ability to survive in the desert.
At one point, just after my Nuvi indicated that we “crossed the border” from the Polisario-controlled Western Sahara into Mauritania, the vehicle in front of me suddenly made deeper tracks in the sand. Gary spoke to me on the radio. He said it felt a little sluggish under the vehicle. It was as though we were driving on a damp crust of a salt pan.
We moved to the side of the area that resembled the salt pan, maintaining momentum with the three Cruisers. The area felt like the pans on the Namibian coast near Deception Bay, where, without warning, vehicles can get stuck by falling through the crust. We knew we had to be careful.
On the edge of the pan we stopped, climbed out and inspected the terrain. Astonishingly, it was indeed moist. But it was not yet the salt mine we were looking for.
Our Mauritanian guide indicated in French and Arabic that we had to move on. We followed his Hilux.
At another wide, flat expanse we saw some activity. There was what looked like stacked heaps of soil. We parked our vehicles at a safe distance, and walked towards it. Then we saw that these were not heaps of soil, but blocks of salt. This was the salt mine.
The people of the desert work the ancient lakes with their shovels. They remove the top crust by digging a hole. About one and a half metres down they reach the layer of salt that was formed by thousands, if not millions, of years of sediment deposit. This is now cut into blocks and removed from the pit.
The blocks are approximately 70cm by 70cm in size. On one side a hole is cut into a block. This allows two blocks to be attached to each other with a leather strap. Using this method, a number of blocks can be loaded onto the back of a camel. A hundred or so camels then form a camel train and carry this precious commodity to Timbuktu, Atar or Chinguetti. This is the way the nomads of the desert have lived for thousands of years.
At the salt mine we saw a few trucks. This has become the preferred mode of transport from the salt mines.
But there were a few hundred camels too, drinking at a well. When the trucks break down, or when the diesel runs out, the camel still remain the best way of getting salt to civilisation.
The men working at the salt mine are as hard as the surroundings they live in. They are dressed in rags. There are no amenities. No accommodation, no shelter. When the desert wind gathers strength over the plains, there is no place to hide.
They are a few hundred kilometres from the nearest town, Zou?rat, where there are one or two shops.
While we looked at the activities at the salt mine, the workers took a lunch break. One of them slaughtered a goat. Everything was cooked – even the intestines. There was no lack of salt to season the meat!
In some way, it felt as though they wanted to show us they were okay. They even had meat to eat. But water and other commodities were scarce. These had to be carefully divided among the 20 or so saltmine workers.
The slaughter of a goat is also not an everyday occurrence.
We got back into our air-conditioned Land Cruisers and followed the GPS to the Route Imperial – the route that connects Senegal with Algeria. This road would take us to Zou?rat and from there to Atar and Nouadhibou.
We left these brave souls behind in the desert and for the first time really understood the familiar expression – the salt of the earth.