National Geographic

Trail Notes: Salt

Masturah, Saudi Arabia, 23°15'53" N, 38°44'48" E

North of Rabigh we encounter an alien world. Its dominant color: white. A concussive white—the non-color you see receiving a sharp blow. The white of lightning. It dazzles the eyes. It stings the lips. It burns our tongues and stiffens our hair. It eats away at our boots. Salt white.

Salt foam  quivers in a hot breeze near Masturah, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Salt foam quivers in a hot breeze near Masturah. Photograph by Paul Salopek

The coastal flats of Masturah are famous for their salt works. The ponderous breathing of the sea, rising and falling in neap tides, fills and drains beach pools with a brine that glints unearthly purple. Pools like gems. Transparent as amethyst. Rimmed with a stinging lather, a corrosive foam. Ibn Saud, the conqueror of Saudi Arabia, reserved these immense salt ponds, by royal decree, for the exclusive use of local villagers—the Zubaid clan of the Harb tribe.

“This is from god,” says Abdulaziz Ibn Hussein al Ghamni, a salt harvester who at 85 looks jerked, dried down to his essences, pickled. “God made it. It’s straight from the sea. Nothing is purer or cleaner.”

Salt harvester Abdulaziz Ibn Hussein al Ghamni in his shop in Masturah, Saudi Arabia. Photograph by Paul Salopek

Salt harvester Abdulaziz Ibn Hussein al Ghamni in his shop in Masturah. Photograph by Paul Salopek

T.E. Lawrence, the British soldier and scholar, rode his she-camel atop Masturah’s salt crusts in 1916.  He was rushing to rally the Arab forces under Feisal against the Ottomans. “Such going was like a pile-carpet for our camels’ running,” he wrote in Seven Pillars of Wisdom. “The particles of  sand were clean and polished, and caught the blaze of sun like little diamonds in a reflection so fierce, that after a while I could not endure it.”

Lawrence of Arabia could not endure a lot of things. He found a way to kill himself, finally, on a country road in Dorset, on a motorcycle. A late casualty of war.

Pure and clean Masturah.

We trudge on, squinting.

There are 16 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Greg J. Bennett
    September 6, 2013

    Not just a “motorcycle” Paul … he ended his life on a Brough Superior SS100 … 1000cc of period motoring excellence fully capable of exceeding 100mph. In all things, style counts.

    • Paul Salopek
      September 11, 2013

      After circumnavigating Australia on an underpowered, bent-framed Yamaha DS-7 two-stroke, I’m pretty immune to style.

  2. HikerBob
    September 6, 2013

    those hands belong to that face
    its a consistent style

  3. Bob Durkin
    September 6, 2013

    keep squeezing drops of the Sun
    From your prayers and work and music
    And from your companions’ beautiful laughter
    And from the most insignificant movements
    Of your own holy body.
    Now, sweet one,
    Be wise.
    Cast all your votes for Dancing!

  4. L. John Daniels
    September 7, 2013

    Bravo, G.J.B., well sayed, dunno just exactly why, but P.S’s sort of prissy & patronizing little gibe about the death of Lawerence irked me a bit, too. may be his (Paul’s) feet hurt?… Mine sure would…

    • Paul Salopek
      September 11, 2013

      Not a gibe at all, L. John. Just a nod across a crowded room at another survivor of war.

  5. Malene H. Fredly
    September 8, 2013

    Hey, I am a 17 years old girl from Norway. I realy like reading about your journey, and I think that what you are doing is amazing. Good luck further on, and I will keep following you!

  6. Eirik S. Gjessing
    September 8, 2013

    This is really interesting! It’s a brilliant job you’re doing, and I wish you great luck for the rest of your trip!

  7. ole andre
    September 8, 2013

    It would have been Nice to see this in real sometime.
    -Ole Andre

  8. Linda Hoernke
    September 9, 2013

    Your description of the salt flats of Masturah is amazing. I can actually see it, taste it. Wonderful photo of the salt harvester…his face tells his story. I am now caught up with your blogs after spending time in southeastern Utah digging for fossils. Looking forward to your next writings~~

    • Paul Salopek
      September 11, 2013

      Yes, the otherworldliness of the Masturah salt flats has rubbed off on Abdulaziz. His was agelessly puckish—a briny elf.

  9. Henrik Krogsrud
    September 9, 2013

    Greetings from Norway
    Your journey is amazing! Wish I could take part of it or do something similar. Keep strong and do what you do best XD Your dispatches are good reading too 🙂

    • Paul Salopek
      September 11, 2013

      Thanks, Henrik. Good to have you along.

  10. Dan Otieno
    September 19, 2013

    Great descriptions Paul. You are really painting the picture. Good luck with your amazing adventure. Am tagging right along.

  11. elizabeth
    February 11, 2015

    Your journey sounds interesting!

  12. GrantHUL
    February 24, 2015

    WOW! Who knew that salt was so important?!

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