As I walk through the dry Mopani tribal grazing lands of the Mahumani Traditional Authority, towards the last salt water harvesting site of it’s kind in the country, I know I will be forever thankful to Steve Collins from the Africa Safari Lodge Foundation who introduced me to the wonders of Baleni.
It is the end of the dry season in Limpopo, large dark clouds swell above our heads – soon the rains will be here. I am just in time to witness the nearly 2000 year old technique of the Tsonga women where they collect salt-encrusted sand and leach it with ntsobe (water) through xinjhava (filters) made with nwahuva (clay) and nhlangula (leaves) to make salt.
The Baleni camp, part of the African Ivory Route collection, is a traditional Tsonga village camp located near the banks of the Klein Letaba River in the most northern part of South Africa. I have read about African Ivory Route and these remote camps that they have in incredible areas of South Africa, but the salt harvest was new for me. It got my attention straight away and I knew that even if it was going to be a bit out of the way, I needed to go. And I needed to go right away, as in a few weeks the harvest would succumb to the coming of the rains and the rising of the riverbed. No harvesting of salt takes place during the wet summer season because the river rises and the salt is too difficult to extract.
Baleni is really unique. Three of the four geothermal sites in the area have been developed into hot spring resorts or spas, forever destroying an age-old way of life, leaving Baleni the only of it’s kind in the country.
About 10 mins into our walk we reach an open plain with a big vlei of reeds. The smell of sulphur is distinctive. In front of me is a geothermal hot spring – the only known undeveloped hot spring in Southern Africa. The water maintains a temperature of around 42 degrees and the site is sacred for the local Tsonga community, especially for the iZangoma (traditional healers). Bathing in this steamy mineral water is believed to rid you of bad omens.
After washing off my bad luck, I put my shoes back on and follow the guide through the herds of cattle, accompanied by cow bells and the sound of the bushveld.
This is a place where you have to let the ancestors know that you are coming. You are also not allowed to refer to any natural elements by their real name as it is seen as disrespectful. “It’s a tradition from our grandparents,” Patience once said in an interview, “We use a sacred language because this is the way of our ancestors and they protect this as a sacred place. Our grandparents tell us this is the way, and we do it this way. We do not always have to ask questions or understand everything that is sacred.”
When we reach the giant lead wood tree, we take off our shoes once more and ask the ancestors to welcome us. The smoke from the salt evaporation is everywhere and as I sit there I know that if there is any place that has been a real place, with real traditions and a sense of preservation and respect for culture, it is here.
Without any doubt in my mind I know that of the many experiences I have had as a traveller and documentary filmmaker, this is as authentic and respectful to local cultures as it gets. It is the foresight and dedication of the African Ivory Route that makes this experience possible to outsiders, fostering an appreciation and recognition of other ways of knowing. I would even go as far as saying that this is what responsible tourism is all about.
If you are interested in buying some of the Baleni salt, you can visit the website here.
Words: Daréll Lourens