Tuesday, 26 January 2010

The Sunland Baobab - 6000 years in the making

"I tell you this baobab is old, very old. Some people say 5000 years, others say 6000 years old. Maybe older than anything else that’s living on earth." Anna Mashasha
Anna Mashasha is the cook at Sunland’s, the farm in Modjadjiskoof, Limpopo on which the baobab stands. She’s worked there for 25 years and is accustomed to having the awestruck bombard her with questions about the tree. Every year thousands of visitors pop by the farm to stand wrapt and amazed, marvelling at what has got to be one of the most amazing miracles of nature, the Sunland Big Baobab.

This baobab is internationally famous for being the widest of its species in the world and at 22 metres high and 47 meters in circumference it qualifies as one of the all time largest living things in the world. In addition to this, it is also the OLDEST living thing in the world today. Carbon dating has it as + 6 000 years old.

To really understand what this means, try imagining this, it is possibly older than the Giza Pyramids and it was certainly here thousands of years before the birth of Christ. When its first leaves were sprouting the Sahara Desert was still lush and green and our Iron Age ancestors were roaming the land.

Once put into perspective, the baobab is even more phenomenal than at first glance. And though the baobab’s fame is internationally acknowledged, nothing adequately prepares visitors for their first sighting of it. Anna recalls that “…some people cry. They don’t know what to do, they just cry".

When baobabs become a thousand years old, they begin to hollow inside. In the Big Baobab this has resulted in a large cavern, in which the owners, Doug and Heather van Eerden, built a Bar and Wine Cellar. The tree bar can accommodate more than 60 people. Must be a group of 60 very emaciated people but there you are all the same! Now whether a wonder like the Sunland 'Big Baobab’ should have been turned into a bar is questionable. What I’m trying to impress upon you is the sheer size of its hollow chamber.

The Baobab has been associated with many myths, mysteries and folklore. And it’s not hard to see why.  The mind takes flights of fancy and fantasy beneath its shade. Immediately David Edding’s book The Belgarath Series comes to mind. It speaks of a lush green vale in which a tree older than time itself blossoms. Its branches stretch far and wide, its bark, knarled and warm to the touch. And it is this tree which throughout the millenniums has been the meeting place of the Gods. Could it be that David Edding’s inspiration was drawn from our Baobab?

The Bushmen believed that the Baobab had offended God and, in revenge, God planted it upside down. Certainly, when winter comes, the Baobab resembles a mass of roots pointing towards the sky instead of being underground. Even the flowers bloom at night. Well from the looks of things, this Baobab doesn’t seem to mind divine wrath one little bit and instead seems to be a timeless testimony of divine touch.

As for folklore, the Bushmen believed that any person who plucks the flowers will be torn apart by lions, because there are spirits in the flowers. Spirits? James Ndhlovu, a local cultural expert agrees and adds that “…they’re pretty potent. You should try the beer they make from the bark! For that you need a really good strong stomach”. The Bushman also say that water drunk, in which the Baobab’s pips have been soaked, serves as protection from crocodiles. And while this may very well be true, I’m not prepared to put it to the test.

The Baobab as a symbol of Africa has a special role in this fascinating continent. Elephants, monkeys and baboons depend on its fruit (the vitamin C content of one fruit is the equivalent of 4 oranges); bats pollinate them by crashing into the flowers while chasing insects and bush babies also spread the pollen which can be used as glue.

At one time it was believed that Baobabs were in danger of becoming extinct. But our One Tree continues to thrive and if it’s legacy of 6 000 years is anything to go by, it will still be standing tall for millenniums to come.