The place: Near the Klein Letaba River in a mopani forest
The people: VaTsonga
Co-operative: Selomba Tourism Primary Co-operative Limited
Beneficiary villages: Selwane, Lulekani, Mbaula, Phalaubeni, Majeje.
Best known for: Ancient salt harvesting and a sacred spring
The highlights of Baleni Camp, aside from the peace and isolation of the rondavels hidden in hectares of mopani, are watching local women harvest and process salt from the Klein Letaba River, and learning how to respectfully approach the local sacred spring, Ka Mkhulu, said to wash bad luck away. Make sure you bring some Baleni salt home with you, either to cook with – it’s being used by renowned chefs around the world – or for healing or protective purposes. Buy direct from the harvesters – and a nearby sangoma can fill you in on the salt’s various applications. Baleni is also a great spot to pick up the Rixile Culture to Kruger Route and is one of the stars of the route.
Guests are housed in five traditional rondavels, each with three-quarter beds and en suite toilet, hand basin and shower. Rondavels, colourfully painted with playing-card designs introduced years ago by missionaries, are scattered throughout a grove of mopani trees. Communal areas include a huge fire pit and an open-air kitchen with gas hob, refrigerator, freezer, pots, crockery and cutlery. With recent renovations, solar lighting/power has been introduced, including solar charging units with USB and 12 V (cigarette lighter) plugs. The kitchen has charging facilities for your 12V camping freezer. Don’t forget firewood and because the water is saline, bring your own drinking water.
Traditional Salt Harvesting – Baleni means ‘vlei’; its other name, Soutini, means ‘place of salt’. For going on 2,000 years, women have been harvesting and processing salt on the Klein Letaba River, and you can watch the ancient practice today. We were hosted by harvesters Mama Maria Ngoveni and Emmelina Mathebula, who initiated the process at the foot of Motswiri, a dead leadwood tree where harvesters and visitors must announce themselves and make offerings to the ancestors.
Harvesting has not changed much since the Iron Age; potsherds dating back to the third century AD have been found in the area. All sorts of taboos apply, such as menstruating women cannot harvest, and harvesters must abstain from sex from two days before harvesting begins. It’s quite remarkable to watch a ritual basically unchanged for centuries.
Ka Mkhulu Sacred Spring – The source of the salt, locals say, is a sacred spring, Ka Mkhulu. A visit there requires a strict protocol of not naming things by their ‘real’ names, out of respect for the ancestors. Baleni Camp guide Thinashaka Tshivhase briefed us, as we stepped precariously on dry tufts of grass in the mud, approaching the spring: “You see those things [clouds] moving up there — those are blankets. And those over there [stones] are nuts. Look, you can see the visitors [wind] moving the spears [reeds]. We will be walking through the spears to get to the spring, and we must respect the owner of the spring, the stick [snake] Nzunzu.” Standing on the edge of the spring, you can see bubbles rising to the surface – the snake/stick down below? Legend holds that if you wash yourself with the spring water – a warm 42C degrees – your bad luck will vanish.
Traditional Dancing/Food – A visit to the Mhombela Cultural Group near the turnoff to camp offers a traditional meal, traditional dancing and an array of crafts made by the local women. After sampling chicken feet, chicken stew, steamed greens, xigugu (a sort of peanut butter with ground maize), two kinds of pap, traditional beer and more mopani worms, we were led outside to sit under an old tree for traditional dancing – participatory in the end. Wearing a traditional xibelani skirt is like gaining ten kilos in a nanosecond. Meant to help you shake your booty, but I was a disaster, eliciting hysteria from locals who’d gathered to watch. I left after purchasing lovely mementos — a hand-embroidered bag for my salt, and several beaded bracelets.
Local Sangoma Visit/Consultation – Sangomas and inyangas (there are local names for both wherever you go) are plentiful throughout Limpopo. Near Baleni Camp we went to one, Mthavini Bvuma, in Shawela village. She threw the bones for a fellow journalist, and told her the ancestors wanted her to become a sangoma – not what she wanted to hear. Once a salt harvester herself, Mthavini told us how she uses the salt as a traditional healer: “I take the water from the ocean and mix it with Baleni salt, and I wash the bad luck from people,” she said, seated on the floor of her rondavel with fly whisk in hand, an assortment of bones before her. “We build our houses so that witches cannot enter our yard, and we use this water mixture; sea water has more power to chase the witches away.” Baleni salt, she added, is often mixed with muti (traditional medicine) to protect soccer players and other athletes; if you bathe in it, it has the power to procure you “a husband and a white wedding.” The salt, we were told, if mixed with a certain undisclosed muti, can even make you a virgin again.