So why Messina?
In Messina is the Messina Nature Reserve (formerly the Baobab Nature Reserve), 37,000 hectares of nature reserve that was established in 1926 to save the baobab trees from paper companies. Since the establishment of the reserve, the trees have been declared national monuments. The nature reserve holds over 1,000 baobab trees and many are over 1,000 years old. The oldest baobab trees are believed to be 3,000 years old.
So why the baobab?
I love old trees. When I was a child, my family took a trip out west and the most remarkable encounter, for me, was seeing the ancient redwood trees in the Sequoia National Park.
A couple of years ago, Deanna and I were looking at a book on remarkable trees of the world and when the page feel open to the baobab, both of our jaws dropped and we both decided that we must see these trees!
So when I learned I was coming to Africa, I thought I would realize my dream of finding the ancient baobab trees!
When we landed in Dakar, I believe I saw one, but it was very small—probably a young tree. As we were not allowed to disembark from the plane (nor would we have been allowed to wander about on the landing field to get near a baobab tree!), I was not able to get close to it.
When we arrived in South Africa, I was dismayed to learn that I would be living and working in too cold an area for the baobabs to inhabit. With a bit of research, I discovered that baobabs do inhabit South Africa, but only in the far northern regions of South Africa, near the Zimbabwe border.
So really, why the baobab?
While I believe the baobab trees incredibly beautiful, it can be argued that they are not attractive at all. Some might even say they are ugly. I’ve heard variations of the story of their “creation”: one story states that the Devil ripped the trees from the earth and replanted them “upside down” in order to anger God; another version states that the gods planted the trees upside down as a joke. And as you can see, the crowns of the trees do in fact resemble more of what a root system would look like.
Well, actually, I’ve found a wonderful account of the baobab from A Let’s Go Travel Guide: South Africa: with Coverage of Southern Africa (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2003). (Thanks Bonnie—a great book!):
The Mighty (Funny-Looking) Baobab
You could mistake its massive bulbous trunk and gnarled limbs for the fossilized remains of an unfortunate mammal, but this object firmly planted in the soil and reaching its many twisted arms toward the sky is living flora known as the baobab tree. Often called the monkey-bread tree or the cream of tartar tree, the baobab (Adansonia digitata) is native to tropical Africa and one of the biggest tree species in the world, not because of its height, (about 18m), but because of its width and breadth. It can grow up to 9m wide, and its branches often spread up to 9m beyond the trunk, which in itself is so vast that it is often hollowed out and used as a dwelling or water reservoir. The tree’s roots can extend outward for many miles. One local legend says that the baobab’s peculiar shape is the work of the devil, who plucked the tree from the earth, overturned it, and thrust its branches into the ground, leaving the roots to dangle in the air. Another story claims that spirits inhabit the trees flowers and that anyone who picks the flowers will be cursed and eaten by lions. French author Antoine de St. Exupery used the baobab as a symbol of European colonialism in Africa. In addition to providing food for the imagination, the baobab has practical uses. Oval yellow –green fruit contains stones covered in a white pulp. The pulp, rich in vitamins, is eaten, as well as made into cold drinks, fuel, soap, and medicine. Extract from the bark is sometimes used as a substitute for the anti-malarial quinine, and the wood is carved to make drinking vessels, canoes, and musical instruments. (345)
Since it is winter here in South Africa and the dry season, I did not find any baobabs in flower. I did, however, find some still holding leaves and some still holding fruit. I’ve read that the seeds of the fruit of the baobab are ground to make “cream of tartar” and that the seeds are ground up and given to children to cease their hiccups.
I’m not sure if all the cream of tartar in the world comes from baobab trees and I’m not sure if the baobab only lives in Africa—but am curious. Anyone?
My first day with the baobabs was with Jerry, my personal tour-guide, who was summoned by the woman at the car rental agency. I would ultimately rent a car and revisit the baobab park on my own, but Jerry and his car took me throughout the whole park—a feat I would be afraid to try again later on my own (the roads throughout were rough and difficult to pass much of the time).
The tour consisted of Jerry driving me about and originally I would leave the car to take pictures. As I’ve been strongly drawn to the trees I wasn’t terribly surprised by the “strange phenomena” that occurred minutes after my first touching of a baobab tree: a herd of at least 30 giraffe came stampeding by within 30 feet of me! I couldn’t believe it! (See the photo below, a photo only I can love as it is the only evidence of my giraffe stampede. If you look closely, you can see the outline of a baby giraffe running and probably only I can make out an adult or two in the background.)
After the stampede, I came back to the car and asked, “Should I be getting out of the car?” Jerry replied that he thought there were lions in the park, so from that point onward I did not leave the car. I later learned that no predators reside in the park and when I returned the next day, I spent all day out of the car.
It was a magical first day with my beloved trees, but even better days were to come.