10. The Stories of Salt

The Stories of Salt
By Eben van Tonder
17 July 2019

An installment in the series, The Salt Bridge

My journey of discovery of the use of salt in southern Africa brought me to Johannesburg. Minette and I wanted to be in New Zealand but dubious former business partners had other ideas.  The Universe used the bad intentions of my previous compatriots and predestined me to be in Johannesburg.  I went hiking around the country to find the soul of this land.  Suddenly, quite unexpectedly, out of the bush appeared three tribes.  One of these tribes, in particular, took me in and started showing me amazing things.  Salt itself started talking to me and took my journey further.

I did a 14 km hike in Johannesburg at the Suirkerbosrand reserve just outside Heidelberg. I completely missed the many old stone ruins.  Back home I read up on the site and discovered that a huge Twana settlement was located there.  I was back the next weekend and then I found the ancient village!

Massive South Tswana Village at Suikerbosrand (Heidelberg, Gauteng)

I saw the ruins of an impressive Tswana mega-city close to the modern-day town of Heidelberg.   At Suikerbosrand there is an ancient Tswana city. It turns out that roughly built stone structures can be seen in several locations throughout the reserve.  Over the next weeks, as I kept returning to the site, I came across many more structures.  Archeologists discovered pottery designs and other objects such as copper ornaments, iron spears, iron rods, and hoes, which identifies the inhabitants as Sotho-Tswana. The such South-Tswana settlements were present throughout Gauteng.

Judging by the dated architectural styles that were common at Suikerbosrand, it’s estimated that the builders of the stone-walled structures occupied this area from the fifteenth century AD until the second half of the 1800s.  The biggest cluster of circles on the reserve form part of a much larger settlement, with what appears to be a royal kraal with commanding views of the surrounding area.

Using recent laser technology (LiDAR), researchers were able to recreate the remains of the city. The evidence gathered by researchers from WITS university suggests that the area was certainly large enough to be called a city measuring nearly 10km (6.2 miles) long and about 2km wide.”

Here is a reconstruction of what it may have looked like, built from the results from the LiDAR research.


Parys on the Vaal and the farm of Berakah Eco Trails

Since I am close to Parys, I thought there may be great hiking trails.  Johannesburg itself is notoriously scarce in its offering to outdoor enthusiasts!  I drove to the Northen Free State town of Parys to try a new area.  I googled “hiking trails” in the area while sitting at a coffee shop in Parys and I could find only one, on the farm where Berakah Eco trails is located.  No sooner did I start the hike when I came upon another massive settlement.  By this time, I have come across a huge Twana site in Suikerbosrand and now, completely unexpected, the ruins on the Berakah farm on the Vaal River.

The Tswaing Salt Lake in Soshanguve, north of Pretoria

I was looking for a transition to enter the Gauteng region in the book I am writing on the history of meat curing.   I wanted to link my time in the story riding transport between Johannesburg and Cape Town to my quest for the origins and use of salt in southern Africa.  I was looking for possible locations where bicarbonate of soda naturally occurs which I thought would do the trick very nicely as a transition salt into my much detailed look at sodium nitrate and nitrite, ammonium chloride and sodium chloride in “Bacon and the Art of Living”.  To my great surprise, I found that high levels of bicarbonate of soda occur abundantly in Tswaing salt lake, 40km north of Pretoria.  The site is, at the same time, one of a handful of impact craters in southern Africa.

Here I discovered more ancient ruins at the impact crater which was in all likelihood connected through trade to the communities in the Suikerbosrand, the communities along the Vaal River and definitely connected to the people who lived in the Magaliesburg region.  It also probably traded with an enormous Sotho settlement in the Bronkhortstpruit area.

The Kungwini 4 x 4 treck at Bronkhorstspruit

Just outside Bronkhorstspruit, overlooking the Bronhorstspruit dam is a site that holds many Sotho and probably some Ndebele settlements stone ruins.  The architecture is markedly different than what I have seen at Suikerbosrand or against the Vaal River, at Parys.  Experts tell me that the Twana ruins show round circles for the houses where the Sotho architecture used the form of a horseshoe.  Iron arrowheads have been discovered at the site, leaving us clues of its dating.

There is evidence that links the building style of the kraal used here with settlements stretching all the way through Tanzania, all the way to Zanzibar.  They reckon that the monsoon winds blow there, a certain time of the year towards India.  When the monsoon turned south, traders, using the villages as route, came down all the way to Southern Africa.  Trading was a key feature of these cities and this area where I hiked, was the endpoint of these important trade routes. The location of these villages seems to be in service of the trade route.

There are San paintings in caves in the Soutpansberge showing Bushman trading.  The Voortrekker Louis Trichardt settled at the foot of Songozwi in the Soutpansberge, exactly for the reason that he wanted to be in the trading route.  Mapungubwe, the mega settlement established on the banks of the Limpopo River was apparently accessed by ship from where trade was further undertaken on foot, south, further into South Africa.  Sand filling up the river ended the boats reaching the city from the sea, by river.

Johan Klopper, the source of the information above reminded me of a delicious practice.  He grew up in Louis Trichardt, and when they slaughtered beef or game, they would roast the animals liver by directly putting it in the ash of the fire.  The ash was the salt that flavoured the liver.  It took me back because it was the exact practice that I know from my youth.  We would do exactly the same, but we added “growe sout” (salt) that was used to salt the hide.  Johan reports that the ash made the liver taste salty.

Two interesting plants are found around the kraal ruins to this day.  The one is Artemisia afra Jacq. ex Willd.  A 2012 study by More, et al. found that “the crude extract of A. afra inhibited the growth of all tested microbial species at concentration range of 1.6 mg/mL to 25 mg/mL. The compounds 1–6 also showed activity range at 1.0 mg/mL to 0.25 mg/mL.  Evaluation of its antimicrobial efficacy was dome against Gram positive (Actinomyces naeslundii, Actinomyces israelii, and Streptococcus mutans), Gram negative bacteria (Prevotella intermedia, Porphyromonas gingivalis and Aggregatibacter actinomycetemcomitans previously known as Actinobacillus actinomycetemcomitans), and Candida albicans.  (More, et al, 2012)  It is suggested that it is better than quinine for malaria and excellent for the flue.  These were planted around the dwellings.  You dry it and use the leaves like tea.

There is another plant found inside the houses that looks like an onion.  You take it out, clean it and cut it in small blocks.  You boil this in water for 10 min and leave to cool down.  It is a remarkable energy booster.

The settlements along the trade route had similarity in building stile and the medicine used.  The interesting thing is that a key feature in trade is salt!

Twana Ruins on Eastwick

As I was discovering the Tsana cities at Suikerbosrand and the sites close to Parys on the banks of the Vaal River, their important salt source of Tswaing; while salt was leading to the local tribes, I discovered the Magaliesberg sites.  This region was introduced to me by Etienne Lotter who has his farm, Eastwick Stud Farm, here where they have one of the best Nguni herds on earth.  Soon after my hikes in Heidelberg, along the Vaal River and north of Pretoria, I visited Thys and his wife on the farm and hiked to the top of the cliffs of the Magaliesberg mountains up a gorge on Eastwick. At the top, we discovered the old ruins of a large indigenous village.

Generally, there was a change in where and how settlements were built around 1650. According to the Hartebeespoort Environmental Heritage Association, “they still built round huts around cattle pens. However, the huts were built with stone and the cattle pens or towns were built on slopes and on mountain plateaus instead of being built in plains like before, where they only made use of clay and grass as building materials.”

It is known that the Kwena Modimosana ba Mmatau built settlements on the northern slopes of the Magaliesburg from Magatasnek to the Maanhaarrand area. It may have been one of their settlements.

Among the early Ndebele migrant groups was the Pô who pushed further westwards into Twana territory than any other Ndebele group at that time. They settled first at Wonderboom, north of Pretoria, and then moved further west to the Tlhogokgolo Mountains. They were surrounded by the Kwena and Fokeng people. Could this have been a Pô settlement? Where are the closest Kwena settlements?

Wolhuterskop is the ancestral home of the Pô which is directly north of Eastwick probably just more than 10km away. The settlement on the mountain is halfway between Eastwich and Wolhuterskop. It may then possibly be Pô. How will I know the difference? I have to speak to an expert.

Their most obvious source of water must have been the Magalies River. It is insane to think that they went up and down the exact same route, we took, to fetch water and hunt in the valley below. I can only imagine the plain below us filled with game. Huge elephant herds, buffalo and of course, hartebeest. The cattle they kept was probably Nguni. They knew steel and their most prized knowledge was of the felt. They could see San and Khoe approaching in the distance and traded with them. I can only imagine the magical world they lived in.









The Magaliesburg mountain

The Magic of Salt

I was intrigued!  The complexity of the societies, their close interconnectedness – their size and sophistication, it all blew me away!  I realized that my quest for understanding the use of salt in southern Africa is nothing less than hearing their stories, told to me by the elders of the different villages, while we sit at the evening village fire, and eat their sumptuous dishes.

Salt is the medium that can not be understood without understanding the people who enjoyed it!  I had to learn about the people so that I can understand what salt is telling me.  THAT is my first lesson.

What will follow are the stories of salt, and we begin with the story of three tribes!