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Travel: The Salt Gatherers Of Baleni

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Words & Images Richard Van Ryneveld

Perhaps it was my imagination, but I felt unseeing eyes watching us as Thinashaka, the Baleni Cultural Camp manager, led me along the narrow footpath through the thick mopane towards the spring. The bush floor was carpeted with the yellow, orange and russet leaves of the ubiquitous tree. Soon the path opened onto a large, grassy area fringed with reeds. It was the Baleni hot spring − also known to the local community as Sautini.

The hot springs are situated close to the banks of the Klein Letaba River, on land belonging to the Mahumani Traditional Authority. The geo-thermal hot springs at Baleni are the only undeveloped hot springs left in Southern Africa − but it was the salt makers at Baleni or Sautini that I was hoping to see.

Archaeologists have discovered, from radio-carbon and ceramic evidence, that salt has been harvested uninterruptedly on the banks of the Klein Letaba River for the last 2000 years. That’s mindboggling!

I had long been wanting to visit these sacred waters, ever since a whisper of their existence had come from a chap called Hennie van der Colff, in Phalaborwa, on one of my trips many moons ago.

Hennie is the Operations Manager at Transfrontier Parks Destinations (TFPD). I had met him on the Luvuvhu 4×4 trail − a magnificent trail through Big Five territory, from Phalaborwa to Kruger’s Parfuri Gate.

TFPD is an organization which develops and manages community-owned tourist destinations all over Southern Africa, but particularly in the Transfrontier Peace Parks and Limpopo province.

While we were sitting around the fire one night, Hennie explained: ‘We manage 10 destinations in Limpopo province. It’s called the African Ivory Route. These safari and cultural camps run in a “horseshoe” from Masebe in the east, through the Waterberg, along to Makuya Park and down the western side of the Kruger Park, and are all owned by the local communities…’

When Hennie had told us about the Baleni cultural camp, the hot springs and how only certain women in the local village are permitted to harvest the salt by hand, I knew that I had to get there,
by hook or by crook.

There are four cultural camps in the TFPD portfolio: Baleni, at the Sautini hot springs a mere 40 kilometres from Phalaborwa; Modjadji, in the realm of the Rain Queen and sacred cycad forest near
Tzaneen; Fundudzi, in the land of myths and legends near the sacred inland Lake Fundudzi; and finally Blouberg, at the foot of the Blouberg Mountains in the Waterberg.

All four camps have five rondavels with two single beds in each. There’s shared ablutions, and a lekker open plan kitchen with a cast-iron gas range and paraffin lamps. But it was the opportunity to
really interact with the local communities’ life and customs which attracted me most.

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