Thursday, July 8, 2010

Pretty in pink. Lac Rose.


A
lake with pink colored waters is not an unusual phenomenon. There are quite a few pink lakes located in different parts of the world. Pink lakes that are also salt lakes is als unusual; there are a few of those scattered around the globe too. The pink coloration appears to be caused by a large concentration of either cyanobacteria or salt tolerant algae.

So, in the scheme of things, Lac Rose or Lake Retba or Pink Lake (in English) is really nothing unique. But it is, by many accounts, one of the most interesting and beautiful attractions in all of Senegal and it just so happens to be located about 30 minutes Dakar.

True to its name, Lac Rose has a stunning pink-to-reddish color, which changes depending on the time of day and position of the sun in the sky. For the most stunning colors, the references I read all recommend to visit at dawn or dusk (dusk is easier) to see the unique lake colors at their best.

Supposedly, visitors flock to the lake to float in its calm waters, relax on its sand dunes, and explore its baobab forest and traditional villages, and plenty of locals make a living gathering and selling the lake's abundant salt. I've already floated in the Dead Sea, the grand daddy of all salt lakes, so I'm not in need to float in Lac Rose. The other touristy stuff is interesting I'm sure but what I really want to see are the salt collectors at work.

Salt is harvested from the lake bottom and it's truly back breaking work. The task of harvesting the salt from the lake is the work of men.

The men head out onto the lake on canoes. They then jump overboard and using crude hand tools, essentially hack the salt away from the lake bottom. Since the the salt content of the lake is about 40%, the men rub "Beurre de Karité" (shea butter) all over their body to protect their skin from tissue damage brought on by extended exposure to the extremely saline waters - most of the collectors work between 6 and 7 hours each day.

The men haul the collected salt to nearby canoes for transport back to the shore. It takes about 3 hours to fill a canoe with salt. Once the canoes reach the shore, the women use basins to offload the salt from the canoe to the ground where it sits in piles ready for bagging. A basin of salt weighs about 60kg and the women make 50 trips per canoe per day.

Men have the job of bagging and pricing of salt. Sure, make the women haul the salt and then the men get the money. How's that fair? No comments from any of my male chauvinist friends allowed!!

The salt that is collected is used locally, primarily for cooking, as well as exported mainly to other West African countries and Europe.


Salt piles on the shoreline of Lac Rose
photograph by Robert Haas, National Geographic


The Senegalese government is not directly involved in exporting the salt. Instead, both privately locally owned companies as well as international companies buy directly from the workers and handle the exportation.

The workers from the 5 villages around the lake have formed a cooperative society to negotiate prices. Workesrs have to pay fees to the cooperative society in order to negotiate prices.

So, how much do the workers make each day? A survey conducted in 2009 indicated that men earn about 8,000 CFA (about $15.50) and the women earn about 1,000 CFA (just a little under $2). Comparatively speaking, the current minimum daily wage for agricultural workers in Senegal is approx. 1440 CFA ($3). Collecting salt is an awfully hard way to make a living and the harsh environment does not make it pleasant to do the work.  I take salt for granted but I think that after my trip to West Africa, I will appreciat every grain!

I found this interesting video on YouTube that shows salt collectors at work on Lac Rose.



Lac Rose is famous for one more thing, too. It used to serve as the last stage for the famous Dakar Rally. Due to security issues, the rally is no longer run in Africa and since 2009 has been held in Argentian. So I'm not expecting to see any rally cars if and when I go to Lac Rose but I do expect to come home with more salt....this time from Senegal - my salt collection is truly going global!