Bario's Salt Is No Ordinary Salt

By Abdul Aziz Harun

BARIO (Sarawak) (Bernama) -- High up in the Kelabit Highlands, regular salt is not available. Instead, at 1,150 metres above sea level, the highland is blessed with a natural salt that is richer in nutrients.

The salt is extracted manually by the residents there from a salt well known as Main Kerambut, located in Kampung Pa'Umor, a 15 minute ride by four-wheel drive vehicle from Bario before continuing on foot through jungle terrain for another 15 minutes.

Each family in Pa'Umor take turns staying at a dilapidated shed which houses the well. Over a course of one to two weeks, they carry out numerous processes to accumulate the salt crystals, which are then sold to tourists or marketed in Miri.

During a visit to the well, it was Rian John's turn to make the salt.Rian, 50, who was fortunately fluent in Bahasa Malaysia and English, explained the process in detail.

TRADITIONAL PROCESS

Water from the well is boiled in cauldrons for 24 hours. During this process it is vital to ensure there is enough firewood and make sure the fire does not go out before the process ends.

Once the water dries up it leaves behind salt crystals in the cauldron, which are then filled into bamboo stems with holes punctured at one end and heated over a fire again to get rid of any moisture.

The solid block that remains in the bamboo is then removed and the top layer scrapped off before being wrapped in leaves with fine rotan strings before it is sold.

"About five generations have worked on this well so far and the salt from the well is said to contain properties like natural iron, calcium, potassium, and magnesium in higher quantities than regular salt," he said of the salt's content.

According to Rian, there has been many versions of how the well was discovered, but the authenticity of many could not be proven. One version is that a hunter's arrow had dropped to the ground and the hunter found the blade salty when he was trying to sharpen it.

POTENTIAL IN SALT

Visitors to Bario usually do not pass up the chance to buy the famous Bario rice and visit the unique salt well.

Freelance tourist guide Bryan Dickson, 26, personally feels that the surrounding area and access to the well needs to be upgraded to further increase its potential as a place of interest.

He had seen several civil servants at the well measuring the land recently. He was made to understand that some improvements were being planned.

During a visit by the Agriculture and Agrobased Industries Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Shabery Cheek to the salt well in April, he announced a special funding of RM350,000 to improve amenities in the area.

He realised the potential in the unique rock salt and that its high iodine content is useful in treat diseases like thyroid.

MARKET FOR BARIO'S PRODUCTS

Visitors who did not have the time to visit the rice factory, pineapple plantation or salt well in Bario need not worry as they can get the products sold at the airport. However, the price will not be the same.

Each foot-long cylinder of salt is sold for between RM10 and RM15, but can retail for over RM20 in Miri.

Furthermore, the packaging of salt sold outside Bario may be smaller compared to that normally found in Bario. The pureness of the salt sold outside also at times is questionable.

A visit to markets in Miri revealed the salt being sold in shops selling cooking supplies and traders sharing information on the content of the neat cylinder packages.

A trader, who declined to be named, said food would keep longer and taste better with Bario salt in it.

She added that people also claimed the salt could treat illnesses, though she honestly did not know what disease and how effective it was.

When asked why the price of the salt differed from that in Bario, she said: "Of course it would differ because it takes 12 hours by car to reach Bario."

Housewife Suzana Chen, 43, said she opts to season her dishes with the rock salt because it tastes different from regular salt.

Because the salt is processed using traditional methods that are more natural and without chemical additives, people are more assured of their health, she added.

LACK OF PROMOTION

According to Rian, the problem of access and lack of promotion channels are the reason why not many were aware of Bario salt before this. However, the presence of information technology and social media has helped to increase awareness on the natural salt.

This is boosted through promotion by the state government and word of mouth, or more accurately through WhatsApp, Facebook and Twitter, which resulted in an increase in demand for the product.

Now another question arises. Would the salt well be able to meet higher demands once infrastructure improves, the salt's benefits are recognised, access to the market improves?

Let the question be answered when the time comes because a bigger mission is at hand, and that mission is how to develop Bario and the unique attractions it can offer.

BERNAMA