KAROM Himalayan Crystal Salt is a wholesale business tucked away behind the video shop in Maleny. It’s off the beaten track of Maple Street, but locals in the know make a point of stopping in to buy Himalayan table salt and salt lamps at wholesale prices (an offer proprietor Alan McDonald reserves for our community). What most don’t realise when they come in for their salt fix, is that there’s a bigger story behind this small business.
ALAN first heard about the purity and rich mineral content of Himalayan crystal salt in 2003 and began importing it to Australia through Pakistani traders, who were essentially middle men from the elite class.
Alan found them difficult to deal with and after a few years grew frustrated with the inconsistent quality of salt he was receiving. He resolved to cut out the middle man and find his own supplier close to the Khewra salt mines, 260 kilometres from Lahore.
Around this time he began receiving phone calls at odd hours of the night from Saira Chohan, an 18-year-old Pakistani woman who spoke broken English, asking if he wanted to buy salt. It turned out her family were also fed up with how the traders from the elite class were treating them. They also wanted to cut out the middle men.
“The English-speaking elites run the trading world in Pakistan and prey upon the ignorance of the artisans,” says Alan. “The bloke the Chohan’s were dealing with before me was a typical salesman who promised them everything and gave them nothing. He didn’t honour his contracts with the family and didn’t pay them properly.
“What is remarkable with Muhammed Chohan, the father of the family, is that he has educated all six of his daughters. He understood the only way they’d move forward was for his children to gain these skills, so he sent them to university.”
Alan booked his flight to Pakistan, made his way north to Gujranwala, where the Chohan family greeted him with open arms — but not a word of English.
An Urdu-speaking family of four adults and nine children, they gave him a place to sleep in their crowded home — a simple room with a bed and a salt lamp. With no-one else speaking English, Saira took on the role of translator.
The Chohans took Alan to the ancient Khewra salt mines, where the supercharged, mineral-rich salt has been sitting unsullied for 250 million years. It is believed salt was first mined at Khewra around 320 BC following discovery by Alexander the Great. The story goes that on a rest stop during Alexander’s visit to South Asia, the soldier’s horses began licking the rocks, thus leading to the discovery of the mines.
The mine has an estimated total of 220 million tonnes of rock salt deposits, sits at 288 metres above sea level, and extends more than 700 metres inside the mountain. It is the second largest in the world (the largest is in Canada).
“It’s profoundly still and incredibly beautiful inside the mines,” says Alan. “You feel rather awed by it. An electric trolley takes you in for thousands of feet. You can be going along for 20 minutes, shine a light on the wall and it’s salt all the way along. The temperature in the mine varies by only one degree all year, while outside it can be snowing or baking you to death. It’s like going into timelessness and it’s quite disconnected from the outside world.”
The Pakistani government owns the mines and sells the initial production to wholesalers, who pile up the salt on the desert plains to be sent to factories for sorting. It’s then either ground into salt or carved into lamps by artisans.
The pink hue of the salt denotes its high trace mineral content, including magnesium, calcium, iron and 80 other natural elements beneficial for health.
The lamps aren’t merely decorative; they are negative ion-generators and are very useful in humid climates like ours. The salt attracts moist air laden with bacteria and fungi, which is neutralised through the antibacterial and antifungal quality of salt, and kept dry by the gentle heat of the lamp.
“To obtain the best salt I invested in a grinding plant with the Chohan family,” says Alan.
Alan also travelled to Taxila, a beautiful stone-working area 130 kilometres northwest of Islamabad, in order to secure a supply of marble for the bases of his lamps. Most salt lamps are made with wooden bases that require fumigation in quarantine, which contaminates the salt.
The children in the Chohan’s village call Alan ‘the salt man’, and while he’s stayed with the family three times, he’s hesitant to return due to the current political instability in the region.
“People do go missing over there and I’ve got three young sons here and a partner, so although I love travelling in that part of the world, I’m staying here for now.”