Fascinating giants – baobab trees - Namibia Safari and Lodges - Gondwana Collection

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Fascinating giants – baobab trees

Avatar of inke inke - 11. January 2019 - Environment

The famous baobab tree at Outapi is a big tourist attraction. Photo by Ron Swilling

Brigitte Weidlich

Some landscapes of northern Namibia are relatively lush, featuring tall trees and shrubs. One tree species, however, stands out due to its extraordinary shape – the baobab tree.

Some locals call it the tree which was planted upside down, with its roots in the air. According to San legend, the Creator had an angry moment and threw the tree over the wall of Paradise onto Mother Earth. It landed in Africa, head first in the soil, only the shiny brown trunk and the roots were visible.

Imaginative names for an unusual tree

The baobab is also called dead-rat tree (from a distance its fruit look like dead rats), monkey-bread tree (monkeys love the large fruit) or cream of tartar tree (its pods dissolved in water or milk are a substitute for cream of tartar when baking). 

The word baobab is derived from the Arabic language and means “father of many seeds”. And if you wonder where the botanical name came from: French botanist and explorer Michel Adanson first spotted a baobab back in 1749 on Sor Island in Senegal. Digitata refers to digits, as in the five fingers of a human hand. The baobab has compound leaves with usually five leaflets.

The baobab is a very striking and unusually shaped tree which can grow to a height of up to 20 metres or more. Older trees have an enormously wide trunk that is sometimes hollow inside. Baobabs can reach an age of 2000 years. A new carbon-testing method can determine the tree’s age quite accurately. Even elephants appear small when they stand under an ancient baobab tree. Many myths and legends exist about these majestic trees, which appear to be relics from a different era of our planet’s evolution. These fascinating giants witnessed many events on the African continent spanning more than a thousand years. Countless generations of people held gatherings and meetings under their leafy crowns. Baobabs have provided shelter to humans and wild animals since ancient times. “Touching a huge baobab tree means touching history and to connect with it; that is very special,” a village elder in the Zambezi Region says.

A huge baobab tree stands in the Kunene region. Photo by Hans Hillewaert

Famous baobab trees in Namibia

An enormous baobab tree is situated approximately 50 km northeast of Tsumeb towards Tsintsabis on Keibeb Farm. This tree was declared a national monument on 2 July way back in 1951. A public road leads to the tree.

A well-known and revered landmark in north-central Namibia is the baobab tree near Outapi (previously known as Ombalantu), which stands 28 metres high. Also called the Tree of Life (Omukwa waaMbalantu) in the local vernacular, it measures some 26 m in circumference. This means that 25 adults holding hands with outstretched arms would be required to encircle the tree. It was used as a hiding place for villagers in the 1800s when tribal feuds threatened the peace. A headman carved a hollow into the tree, where 45 people could hide. In later years an entrance was cut out at ground level. The baobab was used as a post office from 1940 onwards, then as a bar and also as a chapel. Today it is a popular tourist attraction, forming part of the Ombalantu Baobab Heritage Centre with a camping site nearby. The tree continues to grow and bears fruit every year. It is approximately 800 years old.

Another huge baobab can be found at Katima Mulilo in the Zambezi Region. This tree has a somewhat unflattering reputation: when opening the door fitted into the trunk, the visitor finds a flushing toilet! This tree toilet is one of the most photographed objects in Katima.

The toilet inside a huge baobab tree in Katima Mulilo has become a tourist attraction. Photo by Bushsnob

Livingstone’s Baobab in Zambezi

Recently another sizeable specimen in the Zambezi Region gained more prominence as there seems to be a connection to David Livingstone, the famous British explorer. Namibian travel writer Konny von Schmettau listened to historic tales told by the Mayeyi people about Livingstone having visited the area over 160 years ago and took them seriously. The story goes that Livingstone camped under a huge baobab tree in 1851 near the village of Malengalenga for two nights and carved his name and “1851” into the bark of that tree. In Von Schmettau and one of the Mayeyi elders, Patrick Makumba, rediscovered Livingstone’s engravings in August 2016. Namibia thus has its own Livingstone tree, too, like Zimbabwe. Locals even established a small Livingstone Museum. Until 2016 only the Livingstone Baobab in Zimbabwe near the Victoria Falls was known. 

A typical flower of an African baobab tree. Photo by Richard Lyons

Different species of baobab 

Baobabs are endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, mainly in savannah areas. They are deciduous, which means they lose their leaves in the dry winter season, when they look as if their roots are up in the air. Their trunks have a metallic brown colour and look like several taproots attached to another. Some species have smooth trunks. The bark feels like leather to the touch. Baobabs do not have the typical woody appearance. Their soft and spongy ‘wood’ can store lots of water for times of drought. Nine baobab species exist, two are native to Africa. The other species are in Madagascar, the Arabian Peninsula and Australia. 

Baobabs have been introduced to other parts of the world, like the Caribbean and the Cape Verde islands.

A ripe monkey bread, also called baobab fruit was cut open. Photo by Ton Rulkens

Flowers and fruit

A baobab tree only starts producing its first fruit when it is 200 years old. The flowers are beautiful, large sweet-smelling cups of a creamy-white colour. But their beauty is short-lived, they wilt within 24 hours. 

Pollination is rather unusual: mostly done by fruit bats, insects and small, furry nocturnal tree animals with big eyes – the bush babies. 

Various parts of the leaves, fruit and bark have been used by locals for food and medicinal purposes for centuries. The fruit is hard, oval-shaped and weighs over one kilogram. The flesh inside is tasty and rich in Vitamin C and other nutrients. Powder from the fruit is said to also contain anti-oxidants.

Baobab oil is made by crushing the seeds and is gaining in importance for the cosmetic industry.

Baobabs are dying 

In southern Africa several baobabs of over 1000 years old have collapsed and died in recent years. The cause is unknown. Scientists see a connection with drier and hotter conditions due to climate change. 

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