From a natural hot spring in the Greater Giyani municipal area, declared a Natural Heritage Site due to its rich ecosystem, the indigenous Tsonga community extracts a sacred salt following ancient ancestral traditions.
Baleni is the name of the spring and a small oval swamp, about a hundred meters from the Klein Letaba River, and by extension of the surrounding area. Savannah extends around the sacred spring, dotted with acacias (knob thorn in the local language) and mopane trees (Colophospermum mopane), also known as the butterfly tree due to the shape of its leaves. The salt harvesters, around 30 women united in the Baleni Salt Project association, live a few kilometers from the spring.
The salt is harvested during the winter months, because during the summer the rains swell the Letaba and the river’s flow becomes too strong. The bubbling earth, the smell of sulfur and the hot, mineralized water that gurgles from the spring characterize this sacred place, unchanged since the Iron Age. Ancient, inscrutable rules must be respected for every extraction. Only women can access the place and all of their movements (each single step and gesture) are governed by a secret language, indecipherable to most. The local women have been repeating the ritual the same way for the past 2,000 years.
During the winter, the level of water in the swamp goes down and a white crust of salt mixed with mud appears around the edge. The women gather this crust and mix it with river salt to soften it. In the meantime, they construct a basin out of wood, earth and mud, with a hole in the middle, filled with twigs and weeds. The salty sand is placed in the basin and it is filled with river water. The weeds packed into the hole hold the sand and let only the salty water pass through. This is collected in a container and boiled over the fire until it reaches a porridge-like consistency. Constant supervision is required during this stage, because if the salt burns, it will be completely ruined. At the end, the women remove the pot from the fire and allow it to cool. The damp salt is then shaped by hand into cone shapes and left to dry in the sun.
The finished salt has a high mineral content and is greatly appreciated for its flavor. In the past it was used for domestic consumption, for trading with neighbors or by healers.
It is essential to raise the profile of a product that is the direct expression of a place as spectacular as it is important for indigenous biodiversity, both in the Limpopo region and across South Africa. More awareness will make it easier to market the salt and to preserve the deep traditions behind it.
Baleni, Greater Giyani area, Limpopo province
African Ivory Route
tel. +276 03020430