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Baobab - The King of Trees

Avatar of inke inke - 08. July 2016 - Discover Namibia

A baoabab imposing on Namibia's arid landscape.

There is no doubt that the baobab is a special tree with its massive trunk, unique shape - that according to legend is the result of God planting it upside down - and its powerful presence. This king of trees seems to emanate aeons of life-experience, much like a wizened old elephant matriarch or a tall rugged mountain. It is one of nature’s cathedrals, offering shelter, food and relief from sickness. It is no wonder that this gargantuan deciduous tree has inspired myths and superstition and holds a place in our hearts.

It is the stuff of legends. Living for hundreds of years, the baobab’s hollow interior has served as a chapel, reservoir, shop and place of refuge. Its fibrous bark collapses to the ground at the end of its life cycle and its delicate and pendulous white flowers, centred with a soft brush of bright yellow pollen, bloom for only 24 hours before falling like confetti at a wedding.

There are eight species of baobab: one African, six Madagascan and one Australian species. The African baobab Andansonia digitata or Kremetartboom at it is known in Afrikaans, occurs at low altitudes in the continent’s more tropical regions. It prefers well-drained stony soil in hot, dry woodland. It has compound finger-like leaves composed in spirals of 5-7 leaflets at the end of single long stalks.

Its greyish-brown unevenly folded trunk can be more than 20 metres in circumference although the tree is often not more than 15 metres high. Waxy white flowers appear in spring or early summer. The buds start to open in the late afternoon, the flowers opening completely at sunset to be pollinated at night by fruit bats and several species of bushbaby. By the next afternoon they have wilted and fallen to the ground. 

The oval fruit has a hard woody shell and contains a powdery white pulp, rich in vitamin C and likened to cream of tartar. A drink made with the pulp has been used to treat fevers and diarrhoea and the powdered seeds are said to cure children’s hiccups. Large mammals like baboons and elephants disperse the seeds.

Some of the superstitions surrounding the baobab include the belief that if you pick a baobab flower you will be devoured by a lion as the blossoms are inhabited by spirits, that the water the seeds have been soaked in will protect one against an attack by a crocodile (although sucking and eating the seeds will attract a crocodile), that an infusion of the bark will make a man strong and that a baby boy should be washed in water in which the bark has been soaked.

The great tree has a patchy distribution in the northern areas of the country. Amongst Namibia’s better-known baobabs are those that cling tenaciously to the rocky edges of the Epupa Falls, the impressive Holboom in the Nyae Nyae conservancy, the Dorslandboom on the way to Khaudum Game Reserve where the Dorsland trekkers camped in the late 1800s, “Tree 1063” on the farm Keibeb near Grootfontein and the Ombalantu baobab in Outapi. 

The Ombalantu baobab is a heritage site with a long history. The hundreds-of-years old ‘omukwa’ or baobab was once a place of refuge for the Ombalantu people who climbed into its centre and hid between its fibrous walls during tribal wars and cattle skirmishes. It was later used as a post office and finally a chapel. A lectern still holding a bible and several benches remain in the baobab’s centre and visitors to the Ombalantu Baobab Tree Campsite are welcome to sit in the living chapel.

Baobabs command reverence by virtue of their sheer size and age. They tower into the sky, crowned by fringes of green leaves and birds’ nests or stand stark and imposing on the arid landscape. Whatever the season, the king of trees cannot be ignored.

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