Young men slave away in these salt fields from dusk to dawn, an hour’s walk from the village. None of us would have dreamed doing this hike, but for the Afar and Tigrians, this is only the warm up for a long day of lifting, breaking and chiseling chunks of salt from the ground.
The tools could not be simpler: long sticks to catapult large chunks off the ground and axes to break them into smaller pieces and finally into blocks of 30 by 40 cm. Here these blocks of salt sell for 2.5 Birr, once they arrive in Mekele they are worth 20 Birr, about 1 Euro. What seems a steep increase is hard earned money. Each block is loaded and unloaded countless time during the 5 day trip back to Mekele. Strong camels can carry up to 240 kg, whereas the many donkeys that are part of every caravan carry only ten blocks.
The work in the salt field runs like a Swiss clock: soon after the wake up call by the muezzin at around 05:00 am, the men leave the village, an hour later the first caravan follows. Also the elaborate system of organising hundreds and hundreds of camels, unloading and then loading them follows a similar impressive precision. The camels not only carry the salt but also their own food as well as the provision for the guides and the workers. Water is mainly transported in bags made from goat skin.
Nowadays, some of the salt is picked up by trucks in Berhale. We heard rumours that the existing dirt road to Hamed Ale will be turned into a paved road. This would be the end of the caravans and an even increasing number of tourists trampling over the precious salt formations in Dallol.