For early risers, Mekelle’s wide, tree-lined streets double up as an outdoor gym. There’s just the odd donkey trotting along at 6am, making the tarmac a useful open space for local residents do some press-ups and stretches before the tuk-tuks and other vehicles get going.
Our 4×4 was one of the few cars on the road at this hour, and we were heading north out of town towards Eritrea, in search of camels. Not just any old camel, but the camel trains used to transport blocks of rock salt from the Danakil Depression, one of the hottest places on earth.
We couldn’t get right to the source of the salt, but we went as far as the town of Berhale, where the bricks are stored and traded before continuing their journey. Even Berhale was a long way, about three hours up twisting roads cut out of the hills to an elevation of about 1800 metres, before plunging back down to the hot, dusty plains and dry river beds of Afar province.
The camels, when we finally saw them, were proceeding in an orderly line joined together by a long rope, each of them carrying a load of grey, square blocks of salt. And there isn’t just one camel caravan: driving along, you see one after the other, plodding along the road or cutting across the rocky landscape. Camels always look like they’re smiling, but it can’t be much fun walking hundreds of miles through a desert with a load of salt on your back.
At Berhale, we saw the salt bricks stacked up six feet high, and we were shown a warehouse full of them. We bought one for 25 Birr – half of what they are actually sold for in the towns further south.
There’s no iodisation of this salt. The slabs are cut out of the earth, and used as they are, both for livestock feed and human consumption.
Wandering around the little market in Berhale, we spoke to a man who had a spread of items for sale on a cloth under an awning. There was dried spaghetti, sweets, batteries, and matches… And also three bags of iodised salt, produced by Shewitt, which we’d visited the day before.
The seller seemed bemused by our interest in those three bags. No, he didn’t know about iodisation, he said. He hardly ever actually sold this salt. It was 10 Birr a bag, much more expensive than the bricks which stood stacked up just yards away. Why pay more?
It’s difficult to introduce iodisation to this sort of artisan salt production, so it’s not really seen as a priority. There’s some logic to that, but it does seem to mean that the poorest rural people get left out.