They were all young men, their dark bodies glistening with beurre de karité (or shea butter) intended to protect them against the salty water. They were immersed up to their necks in the lake excavating salt from the bottom. This was hard work, spending hours at the time digging with their spades underwater and lifting the heavy load of crystallized salt to the boats. Standing neck-deep in the water meant that every spade full of the white crystals had to be lifted to the height or above their heads. Their shining muscles strained with the movement as they heaved the load to the wooden pirogues some of which were already so overloaded that one more addition would risk sinking the morning's work.
It was still before noon and I was observing this tedious extraction work sitting in one of the flat-bottom pirogues that we had rented on the shore. The man who had leased out the boat was sitting behind me giving a non-stop commentary in monotonous French about the operation. Another man was standing in the rear steering the boat with a long pole. We were at Lac Rose in Senegal.
The lake gets its name from the vaguely red hue of its water, which is caused by an algae that blooms in this favoured ecosystem of theirs. With 380 grams of salt per one litre of water, the lake's salinity is second to only that of the Dead Sea. The salt enters the lake through periodic floods and inundation from the Atlantic Ocean, only a few hundred metres away behind prominent sand dunes. At the opposite end, the lake is fed by a freshwater aquifer. It is this combination that creates the unique conditions in which the algae thrive.
Most of the extractors in the water come from Mali, Senegal's landlocked neighbour to the east. Altogether, there are some 1,000 of them -- 600 men and 400 women -- who work in two-day shifts. Today is the men's turn. In one day, a good worker can fill about 20 sacks of salt each weighing 50 kg. These he or she can then sell to middlemen for 2,000 CFA (Central African francs) (approximately US$ 4) a piece. The money makes the toil worthwhile, although the hard work and the constant exposure to salt water has its health risks that are not insignificant. None of the men appeared to be over 30 years of age.
The shore was lined with huge piles of salt, each attributed by a sign to one of the boats. Both the salt and the beach itself glared white in the tropical midday sun. After a while, it was hard on the eyes.
Senegal has plans to develop this area into a touristic attraction. As we were standing on the shore, a couple of car loads of foreigners, mostly French, were driven in to admire the rare colour of the lake and the exotic industry it supports. A half a dozen local women had spread a long cloth on the bare ground and were hawking handicrafts and other souvenirs to us visitors. Next to them, a local artist sold small art pieces painted on wood in red, brown green and black, depicting scenes from the lake. The salt heaps in the art pieces were made from the real thing. Inevitably entering into a haggle, the vendors eventually won and I felt obliged to purchase various trinkets and a painting from a couple of them. Supporting the local economy, I rationalized. I could always give them as presents to friends...
The tourism enterprise doesn't appear particularly lucrative. A few hotels have emerged close to the lake and observing the salt extraction is certainly interesting. However, despite the scene with the colourfully painted pirogues and the dark profiles of the men toiling away in the lake, the piles of salt on the shore and the small lorries taking it away give the landscape of vaguely industrial look. This is not a place where you would like to spend days or even an entire weekend relaxing and pouring money into the incipient establishments.
Furthermore, although the place is a mere 40 km from Dakar, the capital, the road trip takes at least 1.5 hours on a good day, if the traffic cooperates. Soon after leaving the city, the fabulous four-lane highway turns into a potholed road where hundreds of vendors selling anything between telephone cards and sunglasses, water and pirated Michael Jackson CDs, wander between the cars and trucks stalled in the traffic jam. Dakar being located on a narrow peninsula jutting into the Atlantic, this is the only way out of town. Then at some point -- unmarked by any visible road sign -- one has to turn left, north, entering an unpaved road that in places is in such shape that it's safer to drive on the shoulder. This region, Rufisque, is the centre of Senegal's poultry industry and thus by no means impoverished. Heading towards the lake, we passed through a number of bustling small towns, each one of which seemed to be under construction. The driver, Romain, pointed out a huge tract of land walled off on the left side of the road. It had been acquired by the president, Abdoulaye Wade. On the right side of the road, there was a more reasonably sized area reserved for the first lady.
Having observed the salt production and bought the souvenirs, we headed towards the freshwater end of the lake, source d'eau douce, entering a small village determined to capitalize on the visitors. There was a comfortable looking fruit stand run by a group of women in the shade of a large flowering tree. It was loaded with delicious looking mangoes that were in season. There were also about a dozen or more small stands, all operated by men, selling wood carvings, small paintings, African style costume jewellery, crudely made but charming toy cars and aeroplanes, etc. Again, it turned out to be impossible to pass through the alley without stopping and ending up providing more support to the local economy.
Down by the lakeside there was a lovely shady grove lined with palms, banana trees and the full richness of the tropical landscape. A small hotel complex consisting of low bungalows, a restaurant and more souvenir shops had sprung up in this peaceful place. There was also a small crescent shaped beach here where the sweet water flows into the lake. There were small groups of people relaxing on the beach and actually frolicking in the lake, which at this end was not red. I overheard two couples speaking Spanish, while a family with mixed race daughters communicated in French. A group of Chinese (these days they are everywhere in Africa) sat at a table drinking beer, ready for lunch. On a closer look, the white beach was made entirely of beautiful small shells.
Sitting in the shade under an awning, we ordered lunch from the friendly if somewhat languorous staff. The wait was very long and when the fish finally came -- in my case a sole, which they must have gone to catch from the nearby ocean when I ordered it -- it was extremely dry and almost impossible to separate the meagre meat from the myriad bones. The fleur de sel, which must have been produced locally, however, was of high quality. Despite the toughness of the fish, it was quite pleasant to sit and relax. We were also entertained by an elderly man dressed in a pale blue kaftan and a white Muslim cap playing softly on the kora, a traditional West African instrument with numerous strings attached to a long neck and a calabash for amplification. The music was very soothing. A few days here and there'd be not a single tense muscle in your body, I thought. In fact, you might be brain dead from sheer lack of stimulation.
In the end, the two main uses for the lake -- salt extraction and tourism -- may not be fully compatible. At the very least, the salt mining brings to the lakeshore a rare kind of economic activity that visitors may find fascinating, although it is not particularly pleasing aesthetically. The salt extraction itself may not be sustainable in the long run. Meanwhile, land transformation and draining of the wetlands around the capital for to accommodate for the constantly growing settlements is altering the sensitive ecological balance. There is also evidence that the rains in the past years -- like this current rainy season -- have been erratic, possibly due to changes in the climate. Put together, these forces may result in Lac Rose turning less pink in the years to come.