Tree of life

Print edition : January 17, 2020

A section of the Avenue of Baobabs, or Baobab Alley, in Madagascar. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Tourists come from far and wide to stroll down Baobab Alley and gape at these trees that look more like sculpture than like trees. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

All baobabs look like they have been turned upside down, with their roots reaching for the sky. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The fruit develops when the baobab tree is bereft of leaves. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

At a village, a fenced compound hosting a sacred baobab. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Lovers’ Baobab, some 3 km off the Kirindy-Morondava road. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Inside the trunk of a baobab tree. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A sifaka lemur. The exotic primate is endemic to Madagascar. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Villages are often situated under massive baobabs. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Baobab fruits in a market in the coastal city of Morandava. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A roadside eatery. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

A Malagasy woman in her home in Bekopaka village. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Water is scarce in many villages. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Tamarind in a market in Morandava. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

It is exhilarating to watch the sun disappear on the horizon while a row of baobabs stand sentinel. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The entrance to the Kirindy forest reserve, 50 km north of Morondava. The baobabs on the road to the reserve seem slender and relatively young but those inside the reserve were bigger and taller. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

Another view of Baobab Alley. Photo: Sudha Mahalingam

The baobab is revered in Africa and Madagascar as a sacred and mystical tree. Baobabs can live for more than a thousand years and are perhaps among the oldest living things on the planet.

“A Caliban of a tree, grizzled, distorted old goblin with the girth of a giant, the hide of a rhinoceros, twiggy fingers clutching at empty air and the disposition of a guardian angel,” wrote the Australian novelist Ernestine Hill of the giant baobab tree, which has come to symbolise Africa. As you watch the iridescent ochre orb of the sun glide down ever so gracefully between two massive baobabs on the spectacular Avenue of Baobabs, or Baobab Alley, in Madagascar, you realise Ernestine Hill did not do justice to this tree. The baobab is indeed the warp and weft of the fabric of village life, not only in Africa but also in Madagascar, an island off the African coast in the east.

I am in Madagascar, primarily, to catch a glimpse of lemurs, those exotic primates that are found nowhere else on the planet. As a result of tectonic activity a few hundred million years ago, the island floated away from Africa and subsequently from India and evolved to its own rhythm as did the fauna that got stranded on it. But the baobabs vie for my attention, successfully.

My companions on this journey are Srinivas Shenoy, the founder of Beyonder Experiences; Vijeta, his wife; and Vihaan, their young son. Beyonder specialises in offbeat travel, and this is a reconnaissance trip for Shenoy. I had tagged along with him. After all, Madagascar is a huge country, the fourth largest island in the world, and has poor connectivity. Outside of the capital, Antananarivo, and a couple of other cities on the coast, tourist infrastructure is sparse. It is difficult and expensive to travel solo in Madagascar. But Beyonder ensured a comfortable and enjoyable trip and ample sightings of lemurs.

Baobab trees can live for more than a thousand years and are perhaps among the oldest living things on the planet. Tourists come from far and wide to stroll down Baobab Alley and gape at these trees that look more like sculpture than like trees. Antananarivo is on a raised plateau where baobabs do not grow. But as soon as you descend to the plains, you start noticing the stragglers. On the dirt track through the Kirindy forest reserve in western Madagascar, these iconic trees start lining up on both sides of the road as if they are in some ceremonial parade. Their odd shape fascinates me so much that my head twists involuntarily from side to side as if I were a spectator at a tennis match following the trajectory of the ball. Truly, the baobab compels attention.

I ask the driver to slow down a bit or even stop so that I can take a picture, but he drives on, unheeding. In my halting French, I attempt to scold him, but he waves me off, rattling away something in French. After much mulling over, it dawns on me that he does not consider these specimens worthy of photography and that there will be far more stunning ones further on. Reluctantly, I prise my eyes away to look at the rutted sandy road splattered with dappled sunshine and curtained with reeds on both sides. Occasionally, we come across a family of sifakas, black-and-white lemurs, munching away on a twig or hanging upside down.

Baobabs came to Madagascar and Africa from Arabia. The name baobab derives from the Arabic word buhihub, which means tree of many seeds. The tree has a distinctive appearance. All baobabs look like they have been turned upside down, with their roots reaching for the sky. Naturally, there are fables to explain this: God gave each animal on Noah’s ark a sapling to plant when they got off the ark so that a complete forest would grow. The hyena was the last one to disembark and was given a baobab. Piqued at having been denied what in the hyena’s sights were better specimens, it threw the baobab sapling upside down and ran away sulking. From then onwards, all baobabs grow upside down goes the fable. Another legend tells us that for some unknown reason baobabs lorded it over lesser plants. In order to teach them a lesson, the gods uprooted them and thrust their crowns into the ground.

Zimbabweans believe that the baobab was originally occupied by a python that guided the villagers on the appropriate season to sow their crops or where to hunt for good game. When the white man came, he shot the python, and its spirit now haunts the baobab. Villagers believe they can hear hissing sounds in baobabs on still nights, sounds made by the spirit of the python. In Zambia, a certain species of baobab is feared because it is believed to eat maidens.

The baobab is frequently referred to as the tree of life, a sacred and mystical tree. In his book The Tree Where Man Was Born, Peter Matthiessen writes: “According to the Nuer [tribe], the tree where man was born... still stood within man’s memory in the... south Sudan, ...a great baobab thrust up like an old root of life in those wild grasses that blow forever to the horizons.” Along the Limpopo river, it is believed that when a young boy is washed in water used to soak baobab bark, he will grow into a big man. Women living in kraals where baobabs are plentiful are thought to have more and healthier children. Some people say that there are no young baobab trees, that they spring into being full grown. In Myths of the Sacred Tree, Moyra Caldecott tells of a Bushman legend that says: “The trees fall, fully grown, from heaven, landing upside down.” Perhaps there is a kernel of truth to this observation. During my 12-day travel across Madagascar, I did not spot any small saplings or young trees; all of them seemed venerably old.

Baobabs are called by many names, among them, calabash, cream of tartar, sour gourd, monkey bread tree and elephant fruit tree. Western visitors even called them botanical monster or weird tree since they saw it as a symbol of untamed Africa. Baobabs were first scientifically described by the French botanist Michel Adanson, who gave his name to the species: Adansonia. He recognised the fruits being sold in Cairo’s markets as those of the baobab tree.

Curiously, the fruit develops when the tree is bereft of leaves and hangs from bare branches. The Temre people of Sierra Leone refer to it as anderebai (the chief’s body) on account of its stoutness. They believe that drinking a root decoction of the tree promotes stoutness, a desirable virtue in their culture. In most African nations, the baobab is venerated as a mother or elder.

Madagascar hosts six species of baobabs, the most prolific being Adansonia digitata. The trees are variously distributed through the western and semi-arid and arid zones of the island starting from Diego Suarez in the north to the southern forests of Fort Dauphin. Baobabs thrive on calcareous substrates, even karst limestone forests such as tsingy, and on basalt and laterite soils. Most Malagasy baobabs grow naturally in the lowland as emergent trees in deciduous forests.

Roads in Madagascar are dirt tracks necessitating sturdy four-wheel drives. Our vehicle hurtles at the “breakneck speed” of 10 kilometres an hour, and the occupants are tossed around like pebbles in a rattle. Individual trees are often associated with villages. In fact, as we drive across this vast island, I find that villages are often sited under massive baobabs. A. digitata is confined to the coastal regions. In one village, there was a fenced-in compound hosting a sacred baobab with a sign exhorting you to leave your footwear outside.

It is not easy to determine the age of baobabs since the trunk of the tree is usually hollow. The missionary and explorer David Livingstone was known to have recorded in his journal that “the baobab was no doubt alive before the biblical flood”. Since baobabs produce only faint growth rings, researchers used radiocarbon dating to analyse samples taken from different parts of each tree’s trunk and determined that the oldest (which is now dead) was more than 2,500 years old. But the specimens that line the road to the Kirindy reserve seem slender and relatively young, maybe just a hundred-odd years old. Baobabs are considered among the hardiest of trees because of their ability to thrive in the most arid environments. They have been introduced elsewhere too although they thrive best on this continent. The government museum compound in Egmore, Chennai, boasts a specimen of A. digitata.

As we drive through the Kirindy reserve towards the coastal city of Morondava, the baobabs get bigger and taller. While most of them reach 20 to 30 feet (6.1 to 9 metres) in diameter, there is one in South Africa that is said to have a circumference of 154 ft (46.9 m), so massive that its innards have been hollowed out to fashion a bar that can seat 50 people. Baobabs possess glossy trunks—some brown, some red or grey—and compact crowns that bear leaves only for a month or two in the entire year. I spot just a few trees with leaves although quite a few are laden with fruits as large as musk melons. The trunks are usually smooth and tinged with green owing to the presence of a photosynthetic layer beneath the thin bark.

In the markets en route to Morondava, there are heaps of baobab products for sale. The baobab is used as a one-stop medicine for a range of ailments, including anaemia, microbial infections, toothache, fever, dysentery and malaria. The leaves, rich in iron, can be boiled and eaten like spinach. The seeds can be roasted to make a coffee substitute or pressed to make oil for cooking or cosmetics. The fruit pulp is said to have more than six times the vitamin C contained in oranges, making it an important nutritional supplement. Locally, fruit pulp is made into juice or jam or fermented to make beer. The young seedlings have a taproot that can be eaten like carrots. The flowers are also edible. The roots can be used to make red dye and the bark to make ropes and baskets.

A versatile tree like the baobab is an apt candidate for overexploitation. Supported by the Global Trees Campaign, Madagasikara Voakajy, a non-governmental organisation, has been working closely with local communities to secure management rights to key baobab forests. This will allow communities to manage the forests sustainably and avoid overexploitation. In 2013, the organisation managed to secure rights to the local community in Bepeha village in the west covering an area of 6,453 hectares and home to 400 Grandidier’s baobabs (A. grandidieri), the largest of the six Adansonia varieties. The communities will be supported and monitored in the implementation of the plan by the Direction Regionale de l’Environnement et des Forets.

As we near Baobab Alley, the number of the baobabs on both sides of the dirt track increases. At times, there are dozens of trees in clusters. The grand entry into the avenue is marked by a nondescript placard and donkey carts ambling leisurely along the dirt track, a truly iconic sight. Soon the dirt track ends and the paved road begins. It is late afternoon, and slowly more and more people, both local residents and visitors, descend on the alley to catch a glimpse of the magical sunset. Morondava is just 20 km away.

We park our car and stroll through the magnificent avenue, taking photographs and admiring the views. Happily, this is one site where local residents seem to outnumber foreigners. The mood is celebratory. As dusk approaches, shadowy forms shuffle on a bund facing a line of baobabs against the western horizon. There is an expectant hush as all eyes are on the glowing red ball silhouetted by two magnificent baobab trees. It is an exhilarating experience to watch the sun disappear on the horizon while a row of baobabs stand sentinel as if taking part in a timeless ceremony.

Sudha Mahalingam is the author of two books: The Travel Gods Must Be Crazy, published by Penguin, and a coffee-table book titled Mustang: Mystique of a Mountain Kingdom. She is currently the Raja Ramanna Chair Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor