Harvesters: Mining for Salt

Transport, Money

In one of the lowest points in Africa, amid scorching heat and active volcanoes, lie the Danakil salt pans. For decades, men marched across the arid desert with their camels, mules and donkeys to mine this huge salt flat that goes deep into the earth’s crust. The 1.3 million tons of salt harvested annually here provide for nearly all of Ethiopia’s salt consumption.

To mine the salt in the Danakil Depression, teams of Christian Tigrayans and Muslim Afars gather their camels and hike to the salt pans before sunrise. Working hours are usually before the sun rises, as temperatures can soar above 60°. Miners hack at the crust with axes to form large slabs before cutting them down into standard sized "tiles" of of 4kg (ganfur) or 8kg (ghelao). Unlike other salt mines, the salt in Danakil is never far from the surface, providing miners with easy access. Unfortunately, work does not end there. Once the salt tiles are trimmed and loaded onto the male camels, miners then begin a two-day march along the salt trail from the desert basin to the town of Berahile, located 75km away. With only a 4-5 hour break, each camel carries 30 ganfur tiles and walks through the night. From Berahile, trucks are used to transport 350 camel loads each to the town of Mekele, the heart of Ethiopia’s “white gold” trade.

Construction of a new road has been proposed to speed up the transportation of salt from the desert to the highland. However, the Afars and the Tigrayans believe this will never happen as thousands of miners rely on the caravan trade for a living. And although mining salt will never make them rich, these miners prefer to walk through one of the world’s most hostile environments rather than surrender the tradition of their fathers.


Writer KC Hong is from a long, long line of Chinese people. Thankfully, her grandparents decided to settle in Malaysia. At the age of 3, she was sent off to school because her parents couldn’t stand her chattiness. But after years of being a full-time Asian, she is finally rebelling and embracing that chatty kid. You may find this part-time Asian writing, doodling or getting lost.

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