The Salted Centre

The potato chips hour is about nine in the evening, when you probably should go to bed but instead stay up watching telly with something salty. Lately I’ve been thinking a little bowl of miso soup would suit me better than potato chips. I probably wouldn’t feel dehydrated in the morning.
Claudia and I spent some time in a remote Aboriginal community in the West Australian desert where the older people ran the (only) local store. You couldn’t buy lollies there and you could only buy chips on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. Seeing the basket of small chip packets out meant that it was Friday night and cause for celebration.

In Central Australia, Claudia and I live near salt lakes — immense landscapes of sparkling salt crystal. The white ones are too bright to look at when the sun is out and meltingly beautiful in twilight. There’s a pink salt lake not far from here, too (which always makes me think of flamingos). When you fly over outback Australia, the salt lakes are major features of the landscape below: shimmering expanses of white, twisting and expanding between the infinite red sand hills. Sometimes the salt shows up in huge spreading shapes of grey and rust brown, arising from unbalanced agricultural practices. Then they look like bruises on ripe fruit.

I studied traditional Chinese medicine as a young woman and was struck by the idea that salty flavours are said to strengthen the kidneys. In Western medicine too much salt can harm the kidneys by aggravating high blood pressure. I’ve come to believe there’s truth in both.
I asked one of the traditional landowners from around here about the pre-European attitude to salt. “It was poison!” he said, “Nobody would ever eat it.” The nomadic desert people had no room for added salt in their physiology. Living well on small amounts of water, perhaps they consumed adequate sodium in the plants and animals they ate. Apparently, native grasses in Central Australia are lower in sodium than coastal grasses. Kangaroos in the different areas show hormonal adaptation to the different levels of this important ion. People, too, may have adapted somewhat over millennia.

 Salt Lake Circles (c) Claudia Jocher

Salt Lake Circles (c) Claudia Jocher

When the first Europeans travelled to Central Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century they took salted beef with them. I imagine when the waterholes were fouled by the outsiders’ cattle, the offer of salted beef from well-meaning European Australians would have added insult to injury for the local people. When the Aboriginal people were unable to sustain themselves on the drought-stricken, befouled land, they came in to the missions set up for the purpose, where they were given rations in exchange for labour and study. Flour and tea have tastes which would have been at least recognisable as food. Maybe the small amount of salt in a loaf of bread or a damper gave people a taste for the chemical.

I still wonder whether salt might have been judiciously used (as many poisons are) by medicine people of the inland areas in particular extreme illnesses. I’ve thought about this lately because we had some seriously ill people in the clinic this past summer. They had deteriorated to a critical condition in the fifty degree heat of desert tourist walks, not because of dehydration but because of a deficiency of sodium — salt. Many visitors here understand that they need to drink water in the scorching desert heat. Their tour guides and drivers — many of whom have seen a lot of people sick and collapsed from dehydration — encourage them to drink. Unexpectedly, some of their clients drank too much water and made themselves extremely ill.

One of our patients this year was a small, educated man in his forties. He had missed dinner the night before, missed breakfast, drank more and more water until the sodium in his cells was critically diluted. When he became ill after walking more than ten kilometres in the intense desert heat, he and his partner thought he was dehydrated. He drank more water. His body was sending out desperate messages – stop drinking the water and eat something salty—but he did not listen.

 Salt Lake on a Windy Day (c) Claudia Jocher 2016

Salt Lake on a Windy Day (c) Claudia Jocher 2016

By the time he was brought to us, this man was barely conscious. His body had been tortured by nothing more than eight or nine litres of water. He quickly deteriorated so that he was having fits almost continually, his brain in acute danger. As a remote clinic, not a hospital, we don’t have the isotonic saline — a salty water infusion — that he needed. We don’t keep it here because this fluid is so dangerous to use outside an intensive care unit. So we tried every other way we could to get salt into his body. We gave him small amounts of saline solution, with the saltiness of blood, with a drug to help his body excrete fluid in an attempt to concentrate the sodium in his body. We put a tube down his nose into his stomach and tried to give him small amounts of salty water that way (he vomited it up again later). We gave him medicine to control the fits and calm his body. Slowly, incrementally, his sodium level began to rise. He was evacuated to the intensive care unit of the distant hospital by the Royal Flying Doctor Service. Last I heard he was recovering well.

Even things that are good for you can poison you in excess. Finding balance is the challenge of our individual lives and our societies. But balance is a relative thing. Take a pack of chips with you when you travel in the desert. Could save a life for all you know.