Tucked away in the meandering plains of the Klein Letaba River rests a mine of earth that hosts a grain harvesting tradition that dates back some two-thousand years. It is the practice of the Baleni salt harvest by the Tsonga women who have made it their ritual. A custom and privilege for those who pass the test.
Our station for the night is Baleni cultural camp, in the Greater Giyani municipality, another African Ivory Route shared-value initiative. Its quaint, traditionally inspired accommodation sits camouflaged in the heart of Mopani forests. As you head towards the camp the road provides the workings of a borderline between two clans, passing exquisite cattle heads on both sides of the cultural divide. The sun bakes as you pull into camp, sweating in the 40-degree sun. The climate is harsh, but the huts provide some solace, being a few degrees cooler than the outside.
The salt pans lie a few kilometres from the camp. Your path is through butterfly shaped greenery of the forests that burst into an open plain which is home to cattle from the local villagers and a sacred hot spring of ethereal complexity. No sex or paganism 24 hours prior is allowed if you want to cleanse your body of sin and luck up by dipping into the sulphate Infused waters of hot spring – its cool 30 degrees Celsius bubble and burst your flow of unconsciousness, taxed by the blazing sun, as the clunk of cattle bells and sound of the tall grass moving in the wind penetrates the stiff air.
The brightly clad ladies know we are coming. Being informed of the tourists’ arrival prior, they prepare us a show of what would normally be daily practice. A blessing and sacrifice to the elders named Motswiri is prepared in front of a leadwood tree, where we offer coins as penance for a blessed harvest, before moving into the dry river beds below.
The harvesting itself is drenched in tradition and hasn’t been changed, influenced or affected by the burgeoning gentrification of modernity. Women are the only ones who are in charge here. Elderly women, passed menopause so that the men can go and work labour, and to ensure that the distractions of feminine youth are ignored and their work continues with dignity and dedication. Chunks of the dark sandy surface are scraped with a metal triangle into a dish and transported to clay pots (Nwahuva) that act as filters. The mud from the surface is dumped into the clay pots, which are then filled with water (Nstobe) and the leaves filter (Nhlangula) the brown from the mixture until it drips clear at the bottom. From there, the water is poured into gigantic metal containers which have been heated over a fire, and left to boil until evaporation leaves behind solid white salt crystals, which are broken and bagged for sale.
The Tsonga women have worked these pans for many years, and have never been without luck. This natural trade has provided sustenance and purpose, and will continue to do so until that burgeoning modernity finds its home throughout Giyeni. But for now, they work. A daily task in the blistering heat. Scraping, filtering, boiling and producing salt from the earth, in the corner of an untouched world, where past and present meet, reminding us of how humble we once were, and how thankful we should strive to be.